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Appellate Court Scolds Alabama State U. as It Upholds Hostile-Workplace Verdict

In a sharply worded ruling handed down on Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit rejected arguments raised by Alabama State University in its appeal of a jury verdict in favor of three women who contended that they had been subjected to a hostile work environment and retaliation at the hands of their superiors.

After criticizing several problems in the university’s handling of the appellate process, the ruling states that the panel is “left to speculate who is in charge at ASU.” It then continues: “Regardless, however, we are unnerved by the apparent acquiescence to, if not outright condoning of, the abusive work environment created by its high-level employees. Such conduct simply has no place in a work environment, especially at a publicly funded university.”

The three women who sued the university—Jacqueline Weatherly, Cynthia Williams, and Lydia Burkhalter—were awarded a total of more than $1-million in damages after a jury trial last year in the U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Ala.

One of the two high-level employees that the women’s claims center on is John F. Knight Jr., a state legislator who has held several senior administrative positions at Alabama State, including special assistant to the president and acting president, and is now the university’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. The other is LaVonette Bartley, who served under Mr. Knight as associate executive director in the office of the special assistant to the president.

Alabama State has maintained that the women’s allegations were baseless. University officials told the Montgomery Advertiser on Tuesday that they were still reviewing the appellate court’s opinion and would offer comments later.

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