Faculty member sues UAFS

Unlawful retaliation claimed against college, hospital

The bell tower at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is shown in this file photo.
The bell tower at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is shown in this file photo.

FORT SMITH -- A University of Arkansas-Fort Smith faculty member complained she was the subject of retaliation in the workplace in a lawsuit against the school and Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.

Jackie Cavner's complaint, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, states the retaliation against her has included "a hostile work environment, harassment, failure to promote, undesirable work assignments/schedules, loss of advancement opportunities and failure to make reasonable increase in wages."

Cavner has worked at UAFS since 2010 and is now an assistant professor in the nursing program.

UAFS and Mercy have an agreement in which faculty and students from the former provide services at the latter, with Cavner having regularly instructed students and provided patient care at Mercy, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states she became aware of an incident involving her students while they were observing a physician at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith in 2018. The students, who were women, told Cavner a physician had made an "inappropriate sexual remark" toward them during an obstetric procedure; Cavner reported the incident as a possible sexual discrimination or harassment violation, according to the lawsuit.

After making this report, Cavner began experiencing "retaliation and blowback that has continued since that date," according to the lawsuit. This started when Cavner reportedly received harassing calls and communications from a Mercy physician, whose name was not disclosed. She then learned the physician requested UAFS restrict the nursing students' ability to observe certain obstetric procedures. The complaint described the restrictions as a "direct harm" to both Cavner and her students, according to the lawsuit.

A meeting between Cavner, her supervisor and the UAFS human resource department in late 2018 failed to resolve the ongoing retaliation issues, the lawsuit states. Cavner received an undesirable schedule for spring 2019 that contradicted a previous plan to teach research, and in 2019, was denied funding for a professional trip and a raise.

Cavner and several other faculty members brought forth various grievances against her superior, the dean of the College of Health Sciences, in April 2019. It was during this that Cavner submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for information related to the faculty members' grievances.

Cavner throughout 2019 was passed over for appointments to certain positions and a promotion, "part of a pattern of plaintiff being unreasonably denied promotion and/or advancement opportunities for which she is more than qualified," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also states UAFS required Cavner to make a "dramatic and detrimental schedule change" one week before the fall 2020 semester.

Cavner filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against UAFS and Mercy Hospital, the complaint states. Her charge against UAFS is still pending and has been referred to the Department of Justice, but she received a notice of right to sue regarding her charge against Mercy around Sept. 25.

The complaint states Cavner, in reporting misconduct involving unlawful discrimination/harassment and participating in the investigation of these matters, engaged in protected activity under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

UA System spokesman Nate Hinkel, in response to a request for comment, said it is the system's policy not to comment on ongoing litigation.

Mercy Hospital is represented by Michelle Kaemmerling and Shelby Howlett, attorneys with Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP in Little Rock, according to court records. Neither responded to an email requesting comment.

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