Benedictine University spokesman fired after he filed discrimination lawsuit
A former Benedictine University employee says he was fired just one day after the initial court hearing for a federal lawsuit he filed against the Lisle-based school alleging civil rights violations, discrimination and a hostile work environment.
Elliott Peppers, the university's former associate director of media relations, said he received an email June 22, while he was on vacation, informing him his position had been eliminated.
Peppers, who began working at Benedictine in July 2011, filed the suit against the university and several administrators on May 5. In it, he alleges he first brought complaints of a hostile work environment to officials in September 2013 after he and co-workers were subject to "frequent, disruptive loud tirades" in which one of the defendants, he says, used "crude, offensive language." Those complaints, Peppers alleges, went largely unanswered.
During a September 2016 meeting with Peppers and his staff, Peppers alleges, the same defendant "harangued the group with aggressive, verbally abusive, demeaning, vulgar and derisive language for a lengthy period of time." Again, Peppers said he reported the incident and his complaint went unanswered.
According to the suit, the "disruptive, bullying hostile behavior continues unabated to date."
Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Mercedes Robb is not a party to the lawsuit but is named in it and several exhibits as also being a victim of the outbursts and tirades.
On Tuesday, Robb said only that "Benedictine University does not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters."
The university has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but no date has been set for the hearing.
The court first heard Peppers' complaint on June 21, and Peppers received his termination email the next day.
"Mr. Peppers anticipated they would go down this road. A lot of employees won't fight because they do fear retaliation and job loss, but he spent quite a bit of time trying to resolve the issues internally," said Peppers' attorney, Jill Willis. "The (university) leadership indicated they would conduct an investigation, but he never got any feedback or any results or plans for resolution of the hostile work environment and harassing behavior."
Peppers has no history of disciplinary action, Willis said. Telling him his job had been eliminated was a "thinly veiled attempt to hide that it's retaliation, which is illegal," Willis said.
"My client felt the defendants were already engaged in some form of retaliation and harassment before he left. The ultimate retaliation is to be fired," she said. "Of course they don't call it a firing. They say there was a reduction in force and just coincidentally his name is on the list."
She said the timing is even more suspicious in the wake of a May 11 announcement by the university that new construction had been approved to improve employee work space.
"On May 11, there's money in the budget. Construction is planned and there was hiring going on," she said. "The day after our initial court appearance, all of a sudden there's a big problem with money."
Willis said Peppers tried unsuccessfully to get others who were subjected to the behavior to join the suit.
"Some people are afraid. They would talk among themselves. And now they are looking at what's happening to Mr. Peppers. He did it and now he's Example A," Willis said. "He was willing to take a stand and put his job on the line to expose what he believes is the hypocrisy of Benedictine University and living up to its expressed values and policies."
When the case concludes, Willis said she expects Peppers to be compensated "fairly."
"He's looking for damages negotiated for the compensatory damages associated with his illegal firing and punitive damages," she said. "We're talking about something well into the six figures."