A former longtime spokeswoman for the Board of Regents is suing her past employer, accusing the board of age and gender discrimination and of paying her less because she’s a woman.
Sheila Koppin, in the lawsuit filed Friday in Polk County District Court against the board and its Executive Director Robert Donley, also accuses Donley of misleading her about plans to replace her.
The suit asks the court to award lost pay and benefits and to “reinstate Koppin to her former position or award front pay in lieu of reinstatement.” Board spokesman Josh Lehman — who replaced Koppin in her role as regent spokesperson — said the board is not commenting on the allegations, as they’re related to pending litigation.
According to the lawsuit, Koppin — who had been with the board 29 years — attended a meeting in January 2015, during which Donley announced plans to reorganize the 23-person board staff.
The reorganization involved creating a new “senior communications director” position, and Koppin received a letter at that time stating “the need for two communications positions in the board office will be evaluated” after the new communications position was filled.
Donley, according to the suit, assured Koppin at that time “she was not losing her job as part of the reorganization, and he assured her that the changes he was proposing were not related to her work performance.”
Koppin notes since her hire on Feb. 5, 1986, she primarily received favorable reviews and no written discipline related to her performance, which involved communicating with the media, coordinating board member appearances, participating in media training, managing social media, handling website communication, and serving as the board transparency officer.
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When he announced the new senior communications post, according to the lawsuit, Donley noted the position would require at least a master’s degree, “and he otherwise led Koppin to believe that she would not be seriously considered for the new position if she applied.”
In the following weeks and months, Koppin reportedly pressed Donley for more information about her job and its future.
“Donley dodged Koppin’s inquiries and refused to clarify,” according to the lawsuit.
Just before Koppin took medical leave on March 11, 2015, the board crafted an early retirement incentive program “as part of the ongoing reorganization” and offered it to Koppin — giving her and other eligible staffers 45 days to decide. Taking the offer would have entitled Koppin to continued health care benefits and additional retirement contributions.
When Koppin returned to work in April, she met with Donley about her employment — as she weighed early retirement — and reported in the lawsuit that he continued to dodge her questions. On June 15, 2015, the board hired Senior Communications Director Lehman at a starting annual salary of $100,000 — compared to Koppin’s $76,000 pay.
“All job duties for the senior communication director Koppin previously performed for substantially lower pay,” according to the lawsuit.
During the two weeks Lehman and Koppin worked together, she reports in the lawsuit teaching him “how to do many of what were to become her former job duties.” On June 26, 2015, Koppin received notification her job would be cut four days later on June 30.
Koppin said she was not given the 90-day notice required for positions cut for reorganization because Donley said her elimination was not part of the reorganization. She also reporting hearing from at least one applicant for the senior communications job that Donley said he intended to keep Koppin only two weeks after filling the post.
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The lawsuit notes the board has created three new positions since letting Koppin go — all filled by men — including an electronic media assistant tasked with performing “duties Koppin previously performed.”
“By the time the dust settled, it took two male employees to do the same communications work Koppin satisfactorily performed for over ten years,” according to the lawsuit.
Being 53 at the time she was fired, Koppin is accusing the board of age discrimination. Noting the subsequent hires and pay gap, she’s also alleging gender discrimination. She blames Donley for failing to provide honest and complete information about her job and future.
“Had Donley told Koppin that her position was being eliminated, or even that it was likely to be eliminated, Koppin would have elected early retirement and received the benefits the board’s (early retirement program) provided,” according to the lawsuit.