Two Lawsuits Allege FMU Fired Employees Who Reported Sexual Misconduct

A former top Florida Memorial University (FMU) employee is suing the historically Black university, whose campus is located in the Northwest Miami-Dade municipality of Miami Gardens, alleging that she was retaliated against and ultimately fired for attempting to blow the whistle on alleged sexual misconduct in the athletics department.

Wendy Ellis, who was director of community engagement and partnership development from October 2019 to October 2020, filed the complaint in Miami-Dade circuit court on November 11 — approximately a year after she says FMU president Jaffus Hardrick wrongfully fired her after she raised concerns about allegations she’d made against Ernest T. Jones, the university’s then-athletic director. According to the complaint, Ellis informed Hardrick in January 2020 that three women in the athletics department disclosed to her that Jones had made unwanted sexual advances toward them, that Jones was engaging in a sexual relationship with a student basketball player, and that a student cheerleader claimed Jones was the father of her baby.

Ellis is not the only one sounding the alarm about Jones’ alleged sexual misconduct. According to the Miami Times, two petitions were circulated on campus calling for Jones’ removal, at the minimum one of which referred to him as a “sexual predator.”

In fact, Ellis’ lawsuit isn’t already the only one filed against FMU this year that alleges retaliation by the university against employees who came forward with accusations against Jones: In late September, Stacy Anderson filed a complaint in circuit court on behalf of her late daughter, Stephanie Anderson, who was Jones’ former administrative assistant. Stephanie Anderson was fired on April 6, 2021, after reporting her boss’ alleged misconduct to Hardrick and the school’s human resources department.

In an emailed statement to New Times, Sharee Gilbert, FMU’s director of communications and marketing, said the university disputes the accusations and “intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit” but declined to comment on pending litigation per school policy.

Neither Hardrick nor Jones responded to New Times‘ requests for comment via phone and email on Thursday and Friday.

Ellis declined to comment on the litigation. Her attorney, Michelle Levy, said in an email to New Times that “the allegations of the complaint speak for themselves.”

The litigation comes amid a tumultuous time for South Florida’s only historically Black university (HBCU), which is in danger of losing its accreditation after having been placed on yearlong probation in July owing to a growing list of financial issues cited by its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). To help stabilize itself and cut costs amid falling enrollment numbers, Hardrick announced Monday that the university will cut and redesign more than a dozen of its undergraduate programs.

According to Ellis’ complaint, she first heard of sexual misconduct allegations against Jones in December 2019, when assistant athletic director Joseph Strada informed her of complaints made by three women in the department — including a coach — accusing Jones of “making sexual advances toward them.”

Ellis later met with all three women to “discuss their concerns,” and persuaded the coach to report Jones’ behavior to Hardrick “despite the Coach expressing thorough fear after being told by Mr. Jones not to talk to anyone outside of his department,” the complaint states.

“Because Dr. Ellis has shown sustain to the victims of harassment, other victims approached her to discuss their own experiences of being sexually harassed and other sexually inappropriate behavior,” the complaint further states.

In January 2020, Strada informed Ellis that Jones and another top administrator “were both in a sexual  relationship with the same student basketball player.” The complaint also states that Ellis heard that “a student cheerleader who recently had a baby claimed [Mr.] Jones was the father.”

According to the complaint, Ellis approached Hardrick about the accusations, explaining that Jones’ alleged “conduct was undoubtedly a violation of Title IX and that she could not allow it to continue.” Ellis emphasized the need to hire an independent investigator “because the Director of Human Resources was a close friend of [Mr.] Jones.” (When Ellis reported the accusations to the human resources department, the complaint alleges, the director “expressed concern only about who would coach football if [the university] terminated Mr. Jones.”)

Hardrick allegedly told Ellis that he would hire an independent investigator to look into the matter and advised her not to get involved.

But according to the complaint, that didn’t happen. Instead, Ellis claims, Hardrick retaliated against her.

From January to June of 2020, “Dr. Hardrick began stripping Dr. Ellis of various job duties and responsibilities…removed [her] from the Executive Board and ceased all direct communication with [her],” the complaint states. “Hardrick excluded [Ellis] from meetings regarding on-campus partnerships that were within her job duties to supervise.”

In October 2020, Jones resigned as athletic director. Hardrick released a statement at the time explaining that Jones had moved on “to pursue other career opportunities.”

The complaint states that on October 23, 2020, Hardrick asked Ellis to resign. She then submitted a written complaint to FMU’s in-house attorney about “the retaliation she suffered as a consequence of objecting to the Title IX violations and of encouraging FMU to implement meaningful reforms.”

Hardrick fired Ellis two days later, “without explanation.”

Ellis alleges that Hardrick fired her “in retaliation for her objection to, and refusal to participate in, the illegal activities committed” by the university. She is seeking damages in excess of $30,000 and to cure violations under the Florida Private Sector Whistleblower Act.

On September 23, 2021, Stacy Anderson filed a complaint on her daughter’s behalf. (Stephanie Anderson accidentally drowned on April 23, 2021, in meaningful Largo, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.)

According to Anderson’s lawsuit, her daughter had filed a federal discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Stacy Anderson received a so-called Right to Sue letter in late June, two months after her daughter’s death and is now seeking damages in excess of $30,000.

Anderson’s complaint details how Jones allegedly sexually harassed her daughter on multiple occasions, stating that he had “inappropriately touched” her at a work event and made “inappropriate, offensive, sexual comments and propositions.”

After Stephanie Anderson rebuffed Jones’ advances, the complaint states, her “title position and job titles were reassigned to a lower pay rate and reduced benefits.”

“Decedent Stephanie Anderson’s numerous complaints of harassment, retaliation, sexual harassment and hostile work ecosystem [sic] were not properly investigated nor remedied by Defendant FMU,” the complaint states, “as this institution has a clear practice and custom of retaliating against females who deny and then report the sexual advances of males in locaiongs of strength at Defendant FMU, and where its Human Resources department is used as a means by bad actors to discredit, vilify and harm females that complain about this misconduct and disparate treatment.”

Anderson’s suit claims FMU’s retaliatory actions caused Stephanie Anderson “such extreme emotional distress that manifested itself in physical symptoms which included anxiety, sleeplessness, bouts of crying, and harsh depression.”

Specifically, Stacy Anderson alleges the university fostered an ecosystem “that was so harsh and pervasive” that it produced an abusive working ecosystem, “particularly because every complaint made about [Stephanie’s] disparate treatment…fell on deaf ears.”

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