Imagine you’re a master’s degree student finishing a two-year social work program, with tickets in hand to your graduation the next day. Then you receive a letter from your university stating that not only would you not be graduating, but that you’ve been expelled from the program.
That happened to Tina Varlesi on May 2, 2008, after Wayne State University’s school of social work declared that she had received an “unsatisfactory” evaluation of her required field work internship with the Salvation Army, so she was out on her ear.
Never mind that she had a 3.96 GPA in the social work program and a 3.69 overall, or that the internship supervisor seemed to have a personal vendetta against the unmarried mother-to-be and had previously announced her plan to fail her.
Last month a federal jury ruled that Varlesi faced pregnancy discrimination and retaliation by Wayne State University MI, illegal under Title IX, and awarded her $849,000.
“I feel vindicated,” she told WIHE. “It took a lot of resiliency.” She plans to help other women and especially interns seeking a harassment-free education by speaking out at various forums on women’s rights in higher education and on how women can protect themselves.
This is a cautionary tale, told to help administrators, faculty and staff to avoid causing unnecessary heartache to students, financial damage to their schools and contributing to the current climate of distrust of higher education.
In the beginning
Having received the letter from Wayne State kicking her out of the program, Varlesi was devastated. The 30-year old pregnant woman chose not to marry the baby’s father because “I don’t believe in marrying if it’s not right,” even though he was supportive.
Before receiving the letter, she was set to graduate, had a job lined up and had done a lot of volunteer work in preparation for a career in social work. Because her undergraduate degree was in psychology, she needed a master’s degree to enter the field of social work.
At first she was hopeful that Wayne State leaders would overturn the decision. But the day after she delivered her son Joey on May 27, as she lay exhausted and worried about her future, her faculty advisor called to inform her that she had just 10 days to send in her appeal packet.
“What am I going to do?” Varlesi thought. “I have a new baby, all these school loans, no way to get a job in social work, and I can’t even enjoy my baby.” She recalled it to be “a very rough time.”
According to Varlesi, she started a two-year full time MSW program at Wayne State in September 2006, while working two part-time jobs. After a very successful first year internship for which she received “glowing feedback and the highest possible ratings in every category,” in fall of her second year she was assigned to intern at the VA hospital, where she again received the highest possible grade for her work there.
For her final internship in December 2007, she met with Joyce Stefanski, field supervisor for Salvation Army at its Romulus adult rehabilitation facility for men, and was accepted to intern there.
When Varlesi reported to work there in January 2008, she said Stefanski asked personal questions about her family and marital status, and became increasingly hostile to her after learning that she was both pregnant and unmarried. In fact, Stefanski sought to dismiss her and another female student from the internship and reportedly said, “Well, I can keep them here but I can just fail them.”
During her internship there, Varlesi said Stefanski called her a “beached whale,” instructed her to “wear baggy clothes” and told her to stop rubbing her stomach because it sexually stimulated the men there.
In April, Stefanski gave Varlesi failing marks in 53 of the 54 core competencies, including those relating to recognizing oppression and discrimination, working to advance social and economic justice, and recognizing the impact of different life experiences.
Her negative evaluation, the first she had ever given to an intern, assured that Varlesi would be kicked out of the social work program.
No, no, no, no, yes, no, yes
After recovering from the shock of being a single mother who was unemployable in her chosen profession, Varlesi navigated a series of hoops to formally appeal her failing grade in the internship and get reinstated into the program. Wayne State said no and no.
On or about April 29, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Wayne State University office of equal opportunities. Its internal investigation conducted between May 9 and 13 revealed “no evidence” to support Varlesi’s complaint of discrimination.
Nor did she find help from the school’s ombudsman, who reportedly taunted her by saying that she’d never win a case against the school.
Varlesi also filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which found that her complaint did have merit and convened a fact-finding conference in an attempt at reconciliation. But Wayne State refused to settle the case.
Then Varlesi contacted a series of lawyers, all of whom either said she had no case or seemed unwilling to sue the local university. They found her story of pregnancy discrimination to be so blatant that they didn’t believe her. And pregnancy discrimination is notoriously hard to prove.
Eventually she contacted the Deborah Gordon Law Office in Bloomfield Hills, near Detroit, which calls itself “aggressive advocates of all types of employment and civil rights cases.”
Gordon has a rock star reputation as a “ferocious and feared litigator,” according to the Detroit Free Press. With a staff of attorneys, she has successfully taken on dozens of normally lawsuit-proof government entities such as rogue police departments, the University of Michigan’s dental school, and the entire three-judge bench of the 48th District Court in Bloomfield Township.
“Sometimes these people with all this power have to learn to behave,” it quoted Gordon as saying. “And sometimes they have to know when to say ‘Sorry, we made a mistake.’”
Originally filed in December 2010, the revised lawsuit filed in December 2011 claimed that six defendants working at Wayne State University “acting under color of state law and in concert with one another, by their conduct, showed intentional, outrageous, and reckless disregard for Plaintiff’s constitutional rights” as well as “vindictiveness and ill will towards Plaintiff.”
It cited pregnancy discrimination, parental, family and marital status discrimination against Varlesi in violation of Title IX, as well as retaliation for her complaining about the perceived discrimination.
The six defendants in Wayne State’s school of social work were Phyllis Vroom, dean of the school of social work; Carol Premo, faculty advisor for second year fieldwork; Anwar Najor-Durack, director of field education; and three faculty members of the reinstatement advisory committee who also rejected her request for reinstatement: Shawna Lee, Antonio Gonzales-Prendes, and Margaret Brunhofer.
In addition, the lawsuit named as defendants the Salvation Army and Joyce Stefanski, Varlesi’s supervisor there.
It claimed that some decision-makers at the university and the Salvation Army had no certification credentials to perform or evaluate social work, but did it anyway.
The lawsuit sought legal relief in the form of compensatory, exemplary and punitive damages, as well as interest, costs, legal and expert witness fees. It also sought equitable relief, in the form of awarding Varlesi the MSW degree and correcting her academic and internship records, plus an injunction barring further acts of wrongdoing or retaliation against her.
The verdict and results
After a 10-day trial starting in early January 2013, the jury of five women and three men retired to debate the case. Two days later, they awarded $849,000 to Varlesi from Wayne State, including legal fees and other costs. T
he jury dismissed the Salvation Army and Stefanski as defendants on the grounds that it was neither an employer nor an educational institution, a finding that Gordon plans to appeal.
Although the suit also sought either Varlesi’s reinstatement into the social work program or receiving a master’s degree, the jury did neither. According to Varlesi, “In Title IX cases they usually defer academic decisions to the schools, expecting them to use good judgment.”
Many of the major players in the case have retired, according to Varlesi, not all of them voluntarily. Social work Dean Phyllis Vroom retired as dean of the social work in September 2011, only to be appointed deputy president in October 2012 to help out while president Allan Gilmour recovers from prostate cancer.
Field instructor Joyce Stefanski retired, as did reinstatement appeals committee member and faculty Margaret Brunhofer.
The Salvation Army facility at Romulus now serves women instead of men.
Varlesi still lives with her parents while rearing son Joey and working part time as a researcher at another university, while seeking full time employment. The $40,000 she spent on her degree has not brought her employment as a social worker.
What kept Varlesi going during this ordeal, even when she felt like throwing in the towel?
First, she has an extremely supportive family, whom she continues to live with while working part time and rearing her four-year-old son Joey.
Second, she thought of other students who receive unfair treatment but are unable to fight back, including a presidential scholar who quit the program during her internship at the same place. “I want to make a difference,” she said. “You need to fight for what you believe in.”
Third, her attorney Deborah Gordon was her “guardian angel,” calming her down when she called crying after receiving yet another letter from a school of social work, rejecting her application because of her black mark from Wayne State.
What did she learn?
“I have learned that perseverance and resilience will take you a long way and you will need that if you want to be successful in your conviction,” Varlesi said. “You need to fight for what you believe in. It was a long haul but it was worth it.
“It feels very vindicating to know that an eight person jury found pregnancy discrimination and retaliation for assigning me that ‘Unsatisfactory’ in field education, dismissing me from the MSW program and failing to reinstate me. The monetary verdict is nice but knowing that I prevailed on both of my claims is an unbelievable feeling.”
What did defendants learn?
Wayne State is “disappointed with the verdict” and is reviewing its options for an appeal, according to director of communications Matt Lockwood.
Although Wayne State has an excellent reputation as a progressive university with a social justice mission, it apparently failed to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the social work internship program at the Salvation Army, the lack of credentials of those leading it or the value of the learning experiences of student interns there.
Attorney Deborah Gordon said Varlesi was punished by Wayne State because she “dared to challenge” her unfair treatment by the Salvation Army. She expects an appeal, which must be filed within 30 days of the verdict, and estimates it will take another two years to resolve the case.
Gordon called it was one of her more bizarre trials, with witnesses having “zero credibility.” In addition, she said Wayne State had no coherent argument for its blaming Varlesi’s dismissal on poor performance, and had refused to consider her earlier offer of a settlement.
Administrators have a duty to assure that an internship is a learning experience for the student, a placement free of harassment and discrimination with qualified supervisors, and one that prepares them for future jobs in their profession.
This cautionary tale shows what can happen otherwise. Stay tuned.
Wenniger, Mary Dee. (2013, March). Caution: Discrimination Based on Pregnancy is Illegal. Women in Higher Education, 22(3), 1-3.