The former human resources manager at Lincoln University alleges the university discriminated against him as it gave other employees raises and left his department with an open position.
A lawyer representing Lincoln said the university was responding to budget cuts and the now-retired employee was "unhappy" with the results.
Lawyers representing both sides presented opening arguments to a 14-person jury Tuesday morning at the Christopher S. Bond federal courthouse. Cole County Circuit Presiding Judge Jon Beetem is overseeing the jury trial scheduled to last through Feb. 3.
Jim Marcantonio, a 68-year-old white man, began serving as Lincoln's HR director in 2000 and served under four permanent presidents and a couple of interims. He resigned from the university in the fall of 2018 and filed an employment discrimination lawsuit in January 2019 alleging his employer created a hostile work environment.
Lincoln is represented by lawyers from St. Louis firm Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan and Jackstadt. Attorney Mollie Mohan offered the university's opening arguments.
Marcantonio is represented by counsel from The Meyers Law Firm of Kansas City and attorney Randall Barnes from Jefferson City. Attorney Martin Meyers was the first to approach the jury.
Meyers said the case is about an employee who observed and objected to discriminatory mistreatment but was powerless to stop it, and as a result was plunged into a toxic work environment that forced him to resign.
Mohan said the case boils down to Marcantonio's unhappiness about a "budget crisis" that had sweeping impacts across the university.
Marcantonio's complaints are primarily lodged at the university's handling of a vacant HR position and employee salary raises in other departments, beginning with Kevin Rome, Lincoln's president from 2013-17.
Lincoln's student population was about half Black and half white at the time, but about two-thirds of employees were white. Meyers argued there was a "feeling among faculty that corners were being cut," to increase the number of Black employees at Lincoln, adding that the provost in Rome's administration "wanted to promote race-based hiring."
Lincoln is an equal opportunity employer as required by the federal government as a condition to receive funding, Meyers said. Its hiring process is laid out in university policies, with exceptions for special circumstances. The university also employs affirmative action when hiring, meaning it recruits underrepresented populations to candidate pools to better ensure its workforce looks like the area it draws from.
Marcantonio was the university's affirmative action officer and had a hand in crafting the policy early in his tenure.
Meyers said Marcantonio alerted Rome about the feeling among faculty. And, he argued, Rome retaliated by striping Marcantonio of his affirmative action duties and hired a new person for the role with an annual salary of $75,000.
Around the same time, Meyers said, Marcantonio was told to report to Rome's chief of staff Joseph Watkins, who had been assigned to oversee the university's HR, police and IT departments.
After letting one of four people in the HR department go in January of 2017, Marcantonio and a hiring committee selected a replacement through internal promotion. An older white woman working in the university's library had a degree in human resources and was interested in the job.
Watkins rejected it. He stated during a cabinet meeting that Lincoln "had too many white employees over the age of 55," according to the lawsuit.
The position wasn't filled for another 18 months. Meyers argued it's been a long-standing practice at Lincoln to give employees who are assigned extra duties a temporary stipend until a new hire or a permanent solution is made.
Marcantonio asked for a stipend to compensate him and the two remaining HR employees for the additional duties assumed with a missing employee, he said, but it was denied.
"From that moment on, Marcantonio was persona non grata to Watkins," Meyers argued.
From 2016-17, Lincoln was facing a "budget crisis" and implemented a hiring freeze, Mohan countered. State lawmakers had cut $3 million from the university's budget in 2017 alone, she said.
Mohan said university administrators were forced to make difficult budget decisions, which resulted in various campus departments reducing their budgets by 10 percent. In the HR department, the unfilled position was cut, she said.
Mohan said the university laid off more than 30 employees and cut at least one academic program (early childhood education) because of budget cuts. Lincoln's budget had been shrinking since 2013, she said.
"This impacted everyone," Mohan argued, "Black and white employees, younger and older employees."
As HR director, however, Marcantonio was processing pay raises during the timeframe he was told there wasn't funding to find him a new employee, Meyers argued. The raises, he said, went mostly to Black employees.
Marcantonio and the two remaining employees filed grievances, which were investigated by the university internally. The investigations didn't suggest discrimination occurred but recommended the university provide funding to restore the lost HR position, Meyers said.
By the spring of 2017, Rome left the university and took Watkins and his affirmative action officer with him.
Marcantonio's situation only nominally improved under the interim administration that took over, Meyers said, because a veteran of the HR department was asked to return part-time.
That hire occurred during the university's budget cuts, Mohan said. Several other areas of campus asked for additional employees or stipends and didn't receive them, she added.
When former President Jerald Woolfolk took the helm in 2018, conditions worsened, Meyers said.
Instead of following the university's hiring policies, Woolfolk used exemptions to form her cabinet and didn't benchmark their salaries to similar positions, Meyers contended. Benchmarking positions involves comparing salary rates and duties of similar positions to determine pay raises or the salary of newly created jobs.
Altogether, Meyers said the university spent about $350,000 on new hires and employee raises amid budget cuts.
The collective raises for Carlos Graham, Woolfolk's chief of staff who now serves as campus community and government liaison, and Sandy Koetting, the former vice president of administration and finance who retired last year, were nearly double what it would cost to fill the open position in HR, Meyers argued.
Meyers said Lincoln's in-house lawyer stepped away from the university and those duties were assigned to Marcantonio, who is not a lawyer and was not given a raise. Marcantonio resigned shortly after.
Woolfolk approved the restoration of the missing HR position but the request wasn't fulfilled until Marcantonio had resigned, Meyers said. Woolfolk announced her resignation from Lincoln in May 2021.
Mohan argued that Marcantonio remained one of the highest-paid directors at Lincoln during his tenure and that he didn't take on the responsibilities of other departments as other employees who received raises did.
And "No one told him to retire," she said. "Were his working conditions so bad that a reasonable person would quit?" she asked the jury.
Meyers described the case before the jury as a simple but important one. Employers must prevent managers from engaging in discriminatory behavior and retaliation against those who report it, he said.
Marcantonio's lawsuit seeks compensation for fair and reasonable actual damages, punitive damages, reasonable attorneys' fees, his costs and further relief at the court's discretion.
Lincoln is facing another employment discrimination lawsuit also filed in 2019. In that case, Sheila Gassner, LU's former executive director of facilities and planning, alleges administrators discriminated against her and that she was "constructively discharged" in 2018 because she's white. That case is set for a jury trial in October.