The Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s finding that former Western Kentucky University employee Junlian Zhang was justifiably fired.
A three-judge panel issued a 25-page opinion Sept. 28 affirming the verdict, which the jury reached in a 2010 trial in Warren Circuit Court.
Zhang sued WKU in 2007, alleging wrongful termination based on gender discrimination after revealing her pregnancy. She was a research associate at the Institute of Combustion Science and Environmental Technology.
Zhang signed a one-year contract with the university and was fired Feb. 5, 2007, seven months into her employment.
She claimed in court documents and testimony that after revealing her pregnancy in January 2007, Zhang’s direct supervisor, Pauline Norris, and ICSET director Wei-Ping Pan met with her about it.
Zhang claimed that Pan reacted angrily to the news of Zhang’s pregnancy, which Pan denied at trial. Zhang also made allegations that Chinese employees were expected to work longer hours and felt coerced into doing so in order to maintain their visa status and remain in the United States.
Witnesses for WKU contended that Zhang was fired for consistently poor job performance, and the circuit court jury decided in favor of WKU by a 9-3 vote.
Attorney Greg Stivers of Bowling Green, who represented WKU in this case, said the appeals court decision was “very gratifying.”
“The university never had a conception that any of the claims had any merit whatsoever from the early outset,” Stivers said. “Dr. Zhang was extremely critical and made I think some very scurrilous claims against the university and the folks she dealt with ... where those types of claims are publicly made, it’s good to get public declaration that those claims were wholly without merit.”
Zhang appealed the jury verdict on several grounds, including that the jury instructions were improper and confusing, noting that the jury posed several questions during its deliberations.
The appeals court noted, however, that Warren Circuit Judge Steve Wilson responded to each of the questions and addressed them sufficiently.
“Dr. Zhang makes no further demonstration as to how these questions prejudiced the outcome of the trial,” states the appeals court opinion, written by Judge Joy Moore.
Zhang also claimed that the jury was prejudiced by not being able to consider a letter sent to her by WKU after her firing, which included an agreement to continue her pay through April 30, 2007, which Zhang did not sign.
The circuit court excluded the letter from being admitted as evidence, concluding that the letter would create confusion among the jury due to there being an issue of whether the letter amounted to a settlement, although WKU was allowed to ask at trial about the university’s decision to extend Zhang’s pay.
Zhang believed the questioning opened the door for the letter to be entered as evidence, but the appeals court disagreed.
“At best, this is a settlement offer that Dr. Zhang did not accept, and it would be speculative for any jury to draw an admission of liability solely from the facts that Dr. Zhang rejected this offer and WKU paid part of it anyway,” Moore wrote.
The university continued paying Zhang until March 13, 2007, when her visa status was changed.
Zhang argued that two witnesses, Norris and WKU general counsel Deborah Wilkins, were improperly allowed remain in the courtroom.
Typically, witnesses are sequestered to keep from hearing one another’s testimony and altering their own testimony as a result, but the appeals court determined that Norris was permitted to participate in the courtroom as ICSET’s corporate representative and Wilkins was instrumental in the preparation of WKU’s defense.
The appeals court also determined that the circuit court acted appropriately in excluding rebuttal testimony from Zhang and two other witnesses.
In addition to the claim of gender discrimination, Zhang’s original lawsuit claimed that she suffered intentional infliction of emotional distress, an invasion of privacy and a violation of the Kentucky Wages and Hours Act.
Those claims were dismissed before trial, and the appeals court ruled that this was the proper action, concluding that Zhang’s allegations did not meet the threshold for a jury to consider them.
“Although Dr. Zhang stated that she had difficulty sleeping and was depressed after her termination, she simply does not demonstrate that these conditions manifested in emotional distress in any degree of severity,” Moore wrote.
Zhang’s attorney, Pamela Bratcher of Bowling Green, said she planned to take the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court and file a petition for discretionary review, in which the high court considers whether to take up the case.