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Court rejects former COA exec's lawsuit appeal

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Robert Howard

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court’s ruling dismissing a former College of The Albemarle administrator’s wrongful termination lawsuit against both the college and its former president.

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed last month that U.S. District Judge James Dever III was correct when he dismissed former COA Vice President Robert Howard’s two-year-old lawsuit earlier this year.

The appeals court, which met in Richmond, said in its Sept. 28 ruling that there was no reversible error in the case by Judge Dever. As a result, Dever’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit stands and Howard’s only recourse now is to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reached at his Chapel Hill home on Thursday, Howard, 69, said in response to the appeals court’s ruling: “Justice really is blind.”

The former vice president of business services at COA, who has represented himself in the lawsuit, said he doesn’t know if he will appeal the appeals court’s ruling. He declined further comment. 

John Leidy, the Elizabeth City attorney who represented COA and former COA President Kandi Deitemeyer in the lawsuit, said Thursday his clients were pleased that the appeals court had agreed with Judge Dever that there is "no evidence" to support any of Howard’s claims.

"I can also say that we expected this result all along," Leidy said.

In his lawsuit against both COA and Deitemeyer, Howard claimed he was wrongfully fired in fall 2013 for refusing to tell a subordinate not to interfere in an internal employment search at COA. Howard, who claims he was the victim of age and sex discrimination at COA, also alleged that the college’s officials had erroneously claimed he suffers from a memory impairment.

Deitemeyer and COA, for their part, maintained in their responses to Howard’s lawsuit that he was fired for poor performance. In his 27-page ruling in the case in March, Dever agreed with that conclusion and said Howard’s termination was justified.  

Leidy said getting a ruling from the court in Howard’s lawsuit took longer than expected for these kinds of civil cases, partly because the court decided to allow more time for discovery. Leidy said the discovery process in U.S. District Court generally takes five months. In Howard’s lawsuit, however, discovery took up to nine months.

Leidy said there were numerous discovery disputes in the case, partly because Howard, who represented himself, didn't understand the discovery process or its rules.

"And, so, it became very contentious — and ultimately he requested additional time, which the court granted," he said.

In fact, Howard issued three separate discovery requests and deposed six witnesses, while Leidy said he only made one discovery request and deposed only Howard himself.

Leidy said Howard, in his discovery requests, tried to get into a lot of issues that had nothing to do with his lawsuit. He compared Howard’s time-consuming requests to someone continuing to look for a knife in a drawer even after it’s been established it’s not there. 

"We told him we didn't have it. We never had it – and yet he wanted it,” Leidy said, continuing his metaphor about Howard’s discovery requests. “And so he made us open all the drawers in the kitchen and provide him with the kitchen sink as well, trying to find that knife.”

Deitemeyer, who is now president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, couldn't immediately be reached for comment on Thursday.

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