WASHINGTON — Attorney Dovey J. Roundtree loves her alma mater.
“I love Howard University and I want Howard always to be a beacon of light and justice.”
That’s why she decided to represent more than three dozen former Howard University staff members who are suing the institution for $136.5 million in damages, claiming that they were wrongfully fired. Last month a Superior Court judge here dismissed claims by the university that the case had no merit.
Roundtree, a 1950 Howard law school alumna, says she is not convinced by the university’s claims that its ailing fiscal condition forced the firings. “I want to see for myself just what’s going on.”
“Our contention is that Howard University did not follow their own rules in firing employees,” says Roundtree, referring to the university’s “blue book” or employee handbook of rules and regulations. “[Howard officials] say the blue book isn’t a contract, but anybody can see that it is.”
Howard University’s general counsel, Norma Leftwich, would not comment in detail on the case. “We intend to vigorously defend the university in this lawsuit. Beyond that we really don’t have anything further to say.”
“The university was built and established on service and truth and Howard University has failed on both,” says Alonzo Johnson, who was director of the university’s support services and physical-facilities management when he was abruptly fired Nov. 9, 1994, after 32 years of service.
Johnson, a plaintiff, was among 400 administrative and support staff workers who lost their jobs in a mass layoff at the university in 1994 as part of what Howard officials called a restructuring plan. Dr. Joyce A. Ladner, the university’s interim president at the time of the layoffs, said that legally she had no choice in executing the trustee-mandated cuts and restructuring efforts. The stop-gap measure was designed to close a $6.9-million budget deficit and eliminate non-essential jobs.
Not so, says the lawsuit filed here in Superior Court in October 1995. The suit argues that the restructuring plan was used to ferret out troublesome employees, many of whom had already filed sexual harassment and gender or race discrimination grievances against supervisors.
The suit names as defendants Dr. H. Patrick Swygert, the university’s president; Dr. Thaddeus Garrett Jr., its board chairman; Ladner, who is now a member of the financial control board overseeing District of Columbia finances; and Dr. Artis Hampshire-Cowan, vice president for human resources.
`Change their Attitude’
“What Howard did was mean-spirited,” says Roundtree. “Many of my clients walked into my office with tears in their eyes. It’s got to be a challenge for them. These are intelligent people who worked 20 or more years at this institution. These are good and faithful servants who deserve better,” adds Roundtree, who is also an ordained minister educated at Howard’s School of Divinity.
Insiders say that another round of layoffs are planned at the beleaguered university and could spark additional lawsuits if attempts to further restructure the institution are not handled according to university guidelines.
“Howard will continue to have a lot of lawsuits until they change their attitude and learn how to treat people,” says a bitter Johnson. “Howard has been my life for 32 years. My daughter graduated from Howard. But I can’t rest until I bring this matter to closure. I can’t accept my tenure ending on this note,” says Johnson who is 58 and still unemployed.
Although the suit is officially closed, Roundtree says she is still fielding telephone calls and inquiries from former university employees eager to join the legal battle. “I can’t allow any more. To reopen the suit now would be unfair to the others who have already paid attorney’s fees,” says Roundtree.
Johnson, one of the chief organizers for the plaintiffs, is now helping other former employees also interested in suing Howard for wrongful dismissal. “We’ve cleared the hurdles already and established that there is a case. The rest for them should be easy. We are even willing to share our research with their attorney,” Johnson adds.
Roundtree began her legal career with the U.S. Department of Labor and before long left the government to launch a private practice–Roundtree, Knox, Hunter and Parker. Since the 1960s, the bustling practice’ she runs from a bright blue row house on 11th Street in Washington, D.C., has represented the poor, the infamous and the elite.
Embattled clients aren’t the only ones who have sought Roundtree’s counsel. A few years ago, Hollywood and actress Cicely Tyson came here courting Roundtree. The passionate 82-year-old Washington lawyer serves as the model for Tyson’s character Carrie Grace, a senior partner in a New Orleans law firm, on the CBS drama “Sweet Justice.”
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