Pants on Fire

by NotDownOrOut

When I was a child we used to sing a nasty little ditty about people who tell lies. It alleged that liars could be observed. Their pants were on fire and their noses were longer than telephone wires. It’s not true, of course. You cannot tell a liar from such signals. Of course, some people claim that liars reveal their deceit with telltale signals such as blinks, averted eyes, or inconsistent verbal and nonverbal messages. See http://www.blifaloo.com/info/lies.php/. We have devices known as lie-detectors, but they can be unreliable. Antipolygraph.org. Credibility is often established after all the facts are in and impartial persons evaluate them. Can you tell if someone has deceived you? Does it bother you if you are taken in by someone’s false statements? Does it matter to you that the false statements were made from ignorance, social benevolence, or calculated effort?

In the last week I have pondered non-stop the motivations of people with whom I work. I have sought to give people the benefit of the doubt. I have tried to take people at their word. I have opened my mind to the possibility that my own instincts are faulty. In the end, I have been disappointed by people I want to trust. Something smells funny here. Is something burning? What do you think?

In October of 2011 I learned that I had uterine cancer. I had started to hemorrhage. I lost so much blood that I had to receive eight bags of blood by transfusion before I could undergo a hysterectomy. I called the schools where I was teaching to say that I could not teach that week but would teach the following week. My surgeon told me that I would be released two days after my operation and be able to work the following week. I understand he is one of the best surgeons in this field in the city. All of my supervisors seemed understanding and supportive at the time.

I did return to teaching three days after surgery, but not at the DePaul College of Law. I taught for two paralegal programs and a law school back then. The law school told my students that I was not returning before it told me. Even when I called to say I was ready to return, the law school did not tell me that I could not return. My direct supervisor said that having a hysterectomy was like having a baby. People don’t come back to work that fast. I should plan to rest another week. My class would be covered for me. I did not find out until another day later that my students were reassigned to other classes. I learned the law school’s decision by email from the head of the LARC Department. It was clear from her words that people with cancer could not be relied upon to meet their work obligations. She said:

I need to let you know, though, that after fully consulting with the Dean of Faculty, I felt compelled to make the decision to reassign your students to other LARC III sections. I sincerely hope that you recover from the surgery immediately, but it has been my experience that people in this situation always have slower come-backs than they anticipate. I had no way to hedge against the risk that you might return to teaching this week and then right away, or a few weeks later, find yourself simply unable to continue. My first responsibility is to the students’ learning and the smooth functioning of the LARC department, so I made the decision that increases the chances of maximizing both. I am sorry if my decision disappoints you, and I hope that you are able to understand the situation from my perspective.

That hurt. It’s just plain wrong. Don’t you agree? I wrote to the law school’s Dean to ask if the law school would at least pay the remainder of my contract for the semester. The Dean did not answer me. He had the same person who terminated me for having cancer send me another email to say that I would be paid. I did not get to meet with either of them. I did not observe their behavior. I had only their words to evaluate.

The words were not good enough to explain job action taken on the basis of my diagnosis with cancer. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), people with cancer (and other disabilities) are afforded protection from ignorance and bias. You can read about its protections in an earlier posting on this blog (see the links below). Many former students and friends wrote on my behalf to the law school’s Dean and the university’s President. To my knowledge, the President never answered anyone. The Dean of the law school finally spoke with me by telephone in November of 2011. He said that the head of the LARC Department had gotten some “bad advice” before she acted. She stated in her email that she consulted with the Dean of Faculty, a man who operates a legal clinic for the disabled. My direct supervisor also is an attorney. She represented employers in disability discrimination matters before joining academia. Is this ironic? I think so. I guess some possible explanations of this are that they advised her poorly, were not consulted, or their advice was not heeded. The Dean also informed me that I was not “terminated.” My class was reassigned. I was being paid. I was welcome to return in the next semester. I gathered from this that both of us agreed a termination would be a problem under the ADA. The implication was that the wrong done to me was “benign.” I was intended to be benefited by this paternalism. No one apologized for the rush to a poor decision. I never asked for involuntary leave–paid or not. I wanted to work.

The ADA doesn’t permit discriminatory “job assignments” either. I guess that the Dean has not read the ADA recently.

I tried to talk with the Dean about how we might address the unresolved injury done when the law school took me out of the classroom. He did not like my suggestion that the school offer me full-time employment. I thought it would address the injury done to my reputation by a mid-semester termination. He repeated his semantical objection to my use of the word “termination.” He said he would be hiring no full-time professors to teach legal writing in the next year. I offered to divide my time between teaching and career advising.

Our profession has suffered during the recession. It has been tough for graduates to find employment. I have many ideas for finding jobs. He said he could not consider such a position in the next year. This past week I learned that the Dean has hired a new career services person who also will teach legal writing–a full-time position with responsibilities to two “departments.” That’s amusing. We were to speak again thereafter, but the Dean did not respond to my call.

The next week I began chemotherapy and radiation, which were grueling. I kept on working my other jobs, including at the DePaul Paralegal Certificate Program. My fall paralegal classes ended and spring classes began in February 2012. Once I returned to work after surgery at my other teaching jobs I did not miss any classes despite going through five weeks of radiation and six infusions of chemotherapy. When I had to be hospitalized for infections associated with cancer treatment I was on holiday break.

In October, after the so-called “reassignment” of my students, the law school paid me one last time. It stood out because the payment was the only one I received that pay period. There was no payment from the paralegal program that week. After that, my paychecks kept coming in uneven amounts. I could not tell from my pay stubs which DePaul program or school paid me, but I trusted the assurances of the Dean of the law school and the head of the LARC Department when they told me I was being paid. In January of 2012 I returned to work at the law school.

This is not to say that the remainder of the academic year passed without incident. I have been told I can continue teaching but cannot miss any more classes–even though last semester I covered a colleague’s class for her when she was out for another reason. That’s inconsistent, isn’t it? I heard that the LARC Department head had been discussing disparagingly my conversation with the Dean with people not involved in the matter. I tried to speak about this matter with the Dean and another person at the university, but my calls to the Dean and the other person were not returned. Instead, the person I tried to speak with sent me two solicitations of charitable contributions to support a civil rights clinic at the law school. I find this unfortunate. Do you?

I finished my academic year at DePaul at the end of June. I tallied all my contracts for the law school and the paralegal program and discovered that I was short $2500. It was the amount of one of the seven contracts I had with DePaul during the academic year–a paralegal program contract. After several calls and emails I learned that the paralegal program had paid me what it owed me. However, the law school had terminated my pay in October of 2011, meaning that it still owed me $2,500. Now that was funny. I cannot tell you how many times I said to people that it had to be that the paralegal program had made a mistake. There was no way that the law school would refuse to pay me after I complained about how I was treated, the law school had put it in writing that I would be paid, and we had done so little else to try to “normalize” our relationship.

What do you call a decision to reassign a teacher’s students to other teachers and the termination of payment of salary? I call it termination. It was done because I had cancer, which made me unreliable. It was done by someone who did not speak with me. It was done by someone without a medical degree. It was done and denied. But the denials were false. I believe that the law school terminated me for having cancer.

After numerous calls last week, many of which were unanswered, I was told I would be paid the $2500 by direct deposit on August 3. Again, no apology for the nine months of delay. But I checked my bank balance that day and over the weekend and the money did not hit my account then. That made me so disappointed that I felt sick all over again.

On August 6th I asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate the matter. I did not have the time to continue pursuing this matter on my own. It was time to file charges or let the injury pass. Last week I had been prepared to let the deadline for filing in this matter pass. I was thinking that I had made my point. Cancer patients are like everyone else. They are not innately unreliable. They need to be treated with respect, not biased preconceptions. No one should be able to tell someone in my position that she will suffer setbacks that will make her unreliable.

On August 6th I felt that, even if I ended up getting paid, I had to object to the manner in which my case has been handled. I am tired. It has been a very long year. I still suffer the side-effects of having had cancer. I did not have health insurance when I became ill. I still have medical bills. I would like to move forward with my life. But, as several people have reminded me, if a law school will treat a law professor this way, then it may do the same to people without the ability to call them out for doing it. It’s time to put it on the record and demand that the law school explain what happened and make this right.

No more pretending that people at DePaul College of Law meant well. Someone at the law school told the payroll department to stop paying me. I think it’s time the explanations came out so that we can all decide if there was ignorance, social benevolence, or calculated effort.

To read the emails from the head of the LARC Department, my letter to the Dean, and other details about how the law school handled this matter, start with the following blog entries: https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/bad-day-at-the-office/; https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/excuse-me-for-living/; https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/owning-my-cancer/; and https://notdownorout.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/woody-the-woodpecker/.

What do you think?