WIS Investigates: Employment disputes at the head of SC State legal issues

WIS Investigates: Employment disputes at the head of SC State legal issues

ORANGEBURG, SC (WIS) - For someone who sues SC State University, there's a good chance you'll win and taxpayers will pick up the tab, according to WIS' research.

SCSU has had 33 lawsuits filed or settled in the last seven years that have resulted in more than $1.5 million in legal fees and settlements since 2008, according to records obtained from the State Insurance Reserve Fund. That total number spent does not include pending cases. Majority of those cases dealt with employment disputes and allegations of libel and slander, discrimination or civil rights violations. For Gene Breland, that was exactly his claim.

Breland was an intramural director at the University for more than two decades, until one day in 2012, his time at the school came to an abrupt end. Former school board trustee Jonathan Pinson and at least seven other employees were fired or indicted on federal criminal charges.

"I got an email saying I had been terminated, and I was like, 'OK,'" Breland said. "I thought it was a joke. To this day, all those people who've been indicted, Gene Breland's name doesn't come up in any of it."

With the help of attorney Lewis Cromer, Breland filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming in part, that his reputation had been destroyed.

"They've been fired for no reason, or the wrong reason, perhaps they've been the victim of discrimination or sexual harassment. They come for those reasons," said Cromer, who also represented other plaintiffs filing lawsuits against the University.

School officials lost or settled the lawsuits, except five of the 33 cases, unlike any of the other state universities WIS researched.

"The taxpayers are paying an undue amount of money for the defense of those cases and the settlement of those cases," Cromer said.

Schools with similar, and even larger populations, didn't come close to SC State's litigation costs in the same period. Cromer thinks SCSU's track record on these lawsuits is a reflection of school officials.

"The presidents of South Carolina State, the people that are sued down there, they don't have any skin in the game," Cromer said. "When they are sued, they know no matter what happens to the case, they're not going to have to pay out any money themselves, and naturally, they want to stand behind their decisions and look good. So they're out there prodding these lawyers, telling them, 'Go on. Take this case on. Take these depositions. Try these cases.'"

SC State spokeswoman Sonja Bennett-Bellamy said decisions with respect to settlement for the lawsuits were made by the State Insurance Fund.

"All of these lawsuits/claims were insured under the university's liability policy and decisions made with respond to settlement of those claims were made exclusively by the IRF," she said. "It is also important to note that of the $1.5 million reportedly paid by our insurance company, half of that amount went to pay legal fees and expenses.

"Like many of our sister institutions of higher education, SC State University must confront a myriad of legal challenges related to the education of its students, the employment of staff and faculty and the operation of its facilities," she continued. "Any suggestion that SC State is in a unique position as it relates to defending against lawsuits for monetary damages is misleading."

For Reggie Lloyd, an attorney who's represented SC State University and also led lawsuits against it, it's the behavior of those at the top of the school's leadership that make it a target for litigation.

"There is a disturbing, long-term habit there of not doing what's in the best interest of the employees, or the university itself, but quite honestly, just doing things for personal nature," Lloyd said. "Their decisions that are based on ill will."

Breland was eventually given a five-figure settlement by the University. But he says, there's one thing money cannot replace.

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