ESTERO — Fired two years ago for misappropriating student funds, Florida Gulf Coast University forensics associate professor David Lounsbury should be reinstated, a Lee County circuit judge has ruled.
However, Lounsbury will remain in limbo as FGCU continues to appeal the ruling.
Judge Sherra Winesett’s ruling, issued in a Friday hearing, confirmed an arbitrator’s May 2010 decision stating that Lounsbury should be reinstated and given back pay. A formal written order from Winesett had not been issued as of Monday afternoon, but minutes from the Friday hearing indicate simply that Winesett confirmed Lounsbury’s motion to enforce the arbitrator’s decision, and denied the university’s request to vacate the arbitrator’s ruling.
Lounsbury, 58, was fired from FGCU July 14, 2009, following eight months of investigations into two separate allegations.
Following a paid suspension for an initial sexual harassment claim, Lounsbury was eventually fired on the basis of a second allegation, of misappropriation of funds. An outside investigator determined Lounsbury was collecting checks from students for a certification exam and depositing them into a personal account — totalling $15,000 over several years.
While investigators found no evidence of ill intent on Lounsbury’s part, the university fired him, stating administrators had just cause. The arbitrator who heard the case in 2010 instead stated that, while the university appeared to have just cause at first blush, officials at FGCU had authority to punish, but not fire, Lounsbury.
The arbitrator also ruled that an attorney hired by the university botched the sexual harassment investigation.
To date, Lounsbury is owed roughly $120,000 in back pay by the university, plus benefits. At the time he was fired, Lounsbury earned $60,4277 on a nine-month contract, and university employees have received a 2 percent raise and one-time $1,000 bonus since then. The arbitrator who ordered Lounsbury’s reinstatement also ordered Lounsbury to repay $7,500 to the university for violating FGCU procedures.
An arbitrator’s decision on an employment dispute is considered binding. However, Florida law allows the parties in an employment dispute to contest an arbitrator’s decision on several grounds.
FGCU argued in a July 12 hearing in Lee County Circuit Court that arbitrator Lawrence Hammer overstepped his authority with his decision, and that he was biased against attorneys hired by the university because of a payment dispute from a previous case. Furthermore, the university argued, Hammer’s bias caused him to treat the university’s attorneys derisively throughout a two-day hearing, at one point telling attorney Michael Mattimore he “should be ashamed to work at a law firm that didn’t pay its bills,” according to testimony Mattimore gave at the hearing one week ago.
Winesett apparently rejected this as a premise for nullifying the arbitrator’s ruling.
“We are disappointed in the ruling, and we are going to appeal it,” university spokeswoman Susan Evans said in a statement on Monday.
Evans said she did not know the timeline for an appeal with the Second District Court of Appeals in Lakeland, Fla. Evans said the university would not reinstate Lounsbury as long as it was pursuing appeals.
She declined further comment, citing a long-standing university policy prohibiting comment on ongoing litigation.
Florida Gulf Coast University in February won a separate long-standing employment dispute when it won a federal civil case brought by former Provost Bonnie Yegidis. Both Yegidis and Lounsbury left the university as it was struggling to emerge from a cloud sexual harassment and gender discrimination allegations.
In Yegidis’s case, a federal jury failed to find that the university discriminated against her based on her gender.
In Lounsbury’s case, the criminal forensics professor came under investigation because of accusations by two students that he made “off-color” comments while fondling an anatomically correct mannequin used in a death investigation course. While on paid suspension for that allegation, the university discovered and started investigating the alleged misappropriation of funds.
He was fired seven months later.
In disputing the arbitrator’s award, the university’s attorneys contested his findings on the misappropriation of funds, but did not challenge the arbitrator’s ruling that the university should not have taken action against Lounsbury on the sexual harassment claims.
“I think especially on the issue of evident partiality, I think that’s kind of an all-or-nothing thing,” said Mark Kelly, the Tampa attorney who represented Lounsbury on behalf of the FGCU faculty union, after the July 12 hearing. “Either the arbitrator was biased against your side or was not. And it seems to me that if their claim was that the arbitrator was really biased they should have challenged the entire award.”
Attempts to reach Lounsbury and Kelly on Monday were unsuccessful.
Connect with education reporter Leslie Williams Hale at naplesnews.com/staff/leslie_hale