Kristen Bennett, the former executive vice president of advancement at Tarrant County College, keeps coming back to some advice she learned from former coworkers: “You cannot trust human resources at TCC,” she said.
In August, Chancellor Eugene Giovannini placed her on an improvement plan and opted to not renew her contract. They met in one-on-one meetings for months without HR in the room, she said. All she wanted to do was survive the process. She thought to herself, “I can’t go to HR because if I go to them, I don’t think they’re really going to help me.”
So she didn’t. She eventually was stripped of her job, barred from stepping foot on TCC property and says she didn’t get the opportunity to go through the proper termination process, according to a February lawsuit.
Bennett is part of a group of people terminated from TCC who claim they did not get their constitutional right to due process and filed lawsuits. The cases raise questions about whether TCC ensures proper due process for all employees, who describe their situations as symptoms of a larger issue. Administrators, though, say they are following the process outlined in law and policy and are pushing back against the claims of systemic abuse.
“Giovannini exacerbated it,” said Frank Hill, the lawyer on Bennett’s lawsuit and two related cases. He described top administrators as upholding an unfair system that ultimately costs taxpayers thousands of dollars annually to pay lawyers, settlements and investigations.
The board of trustees started the process to fire the chancellor in mid-March. Before taking that step, the trustees placed Giovannini on administrative leave as a third-party firm investigates Bennett’s retaliation claims against the chancellor.
Carol Bracken, TCC’s associate general counsel, disputed Hill’s claim that the college systematically withholds employees’ due process rights. Administrators described the college’s due process policies as robust. Susan Alanis, the college’s chief operating officer, said it is not unusual for an organization as large as TCC to have issues like this pop up.
“While Tarrant County College cannot comment on pending or prior litigation, or individual personnel cases, we believe our established, identified and detailed due process policies and practices provide employees with an appropriate and fair pathway for relief of their grievances,” Bracken told the Fort Worth Report.
Bennett says her lawsuit is aimed squarely at Giovannini and administrators who she believes have not given employees their basic rights when they learn they are set to be terminated.
Bennett filed a lawsuit claiming the college did not follow the proper procedures before ending her employment. In a response to Bennett’s lawsuit, TCC pushed back on her allegations and asked for a federal judge to dismiss the case.
Two other former TCC employees have also filed suit. Joe Matthews, the college’s former printing services director, is one of them.
“Every employee deserves due process, no matter what,” Matthews said. “But it’s not possible with the chancellor they have now.”
The three cases Hill has recently worked on, he says, are just a small sliver of his decades-spanning push to see TCC improve its termination process.
Bracken has been at TCC for more than a decade. During her time at the college, Bracken said, there has not been a legal finding that TCC has violated an employee’s due process rights.
‘Set up a system that is fair’
Hill is convinced the lawsuits he has filed against TCC could have been avoided if TCC had followed its own processes. He does not see that changing anytime soon.
Even with a new chancellor in the future, Hill said he wasn’t sure the new leader will be a silver bullet to the college’s due process issues. The chancellor has not followed the college’s policies, he said, making TCC vulnerable to lawsuits.
Regardless, Hill hopes the new chancellor will take a serious look at revising TCC’s due process policies and make it a top priority — or at the very least enforce what’s already on the books.
“If the new chancellor doesn’t get involved and truly wants to set up a system that is fair to the employees, it’s going to remain the way it’s been all of my career,” Hill said. “That is: At Tarrant County College, there is a syndrome of it’s them against us. It’s the administration against the employees — and that’s bad.”
Hill, who specializes in handling cases representing public sector employees, recommended TCC take these steps:
- Gather the board of trustees and college’s top leaders to talk with him about how to review and revise the college’s termination policies so that they are fairer.
- Create a new position called an employment ombudsman.
Going forward, the key would be for trustees to stay involved and hold the chancellor accountable to following the policies, he said.
What is an ombudsman?
An ombudsman is a neutral party that would hear employees’ grievances, filter the issues of both sides and try to bring the parties together without hearings and find a resolution.
Colleges big and small across the state have an ombudsman for staff and their issues. They include Austin Community College, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Houston. The position is tasked with working with employees and resolving their issues. Going to an ombudsman is generally a confidential, informal process.
An ombudsman could even suggest policy changes for recurring issues.
But the position has its limits. An ombudsman does not conduct formal investigations, examine the merits of complaints, represent staff in formal hearings or participate in administrative decisions. The job was built with neutrality in mind so issues can be resolved.
TCC does not have any immediate plans to add this position, but Bracken stressed TCC is open to any written suggestions.
How to not renew a contract and fire a TCC employee
TCC policy outlines the process for how to not renew a contract and terminate an employee:
- If supervisors do not plan to renew an employee’s contract, they have to notify a cabinet-level administrator.
- The administrator has to consult the human resources executive director before any action is taken.
- The employee has to be notified if human resources, the chancellor or his designee approve the dismissal.
Contract employees can appeal a non-renewal decision. They must file a grievance, and then the college will schedule a conference within seven business days.
The hearing is in front of a panel of the employee’s peers. They hear arguments from both sides and determine whether the employer has proven good cause for termination or not.
TCC allows for employees to be dismissed without good cause before the end of their contract. However, the college must notify them in writing, informing them of the proposed action and grounds.
At that point, the employee can contest the dismissal, and the board of trustees will hear the appeal.
Sometimes, though, public employers may have made missteps in the termination process, said Michael Z. Green, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Law. Most governmental entities usually see due process as a checklist that needs to be done before someone is let go.
Going through that checklist doesn’t always happen. The professor said a public employer could have political pressure for firing a worker or the situation requires an expedited process. Leadership could be another factor, Green added.
Hill said an employment ombudsman would have found a way to give Bennett everything she was entitled to and avoided a lawsuit — and likely a full procedural due process hearing.
“But that’s too much to hope for from the college district,” Hill said.
What is due process?
The Constitution gives all Americans the right to due process, a legal requirement that the government must respect people’s legal rights. That right also applies when a person works for a public institution, such as TCC.
Michael Z. Green is a professor and the director of the workplace law program at Texas A&M University School of Law. Due process is a constitutional requirement the government cannot deprive people of, he said.
Green compared employment due process to when a person may be taken to jail for a crime they may have committed.
“You can’t put me in jail for the rest of my life without having given me notice of what the charges were and give me the opportunity to respond. That would be deprivation of my interests,” the law professor said. “When an employer is a governmental body, those constitutional requirements still apply to them as well.”
Due process requirements are not as strict on public employers as they are in the criminal court system. That’s because public employers are not trying to restrict fundamental rights of a person like in a criminal process.
Still, Green stressed, the law requires governmental employers to give their workers due process.
“It’s not usually hard for the employing entity to provide that,” he said.
TCC has a policy outlining how to not renew contracts and terminate employees. However, Hill argues the college did not follow the proper steps with his clients and others.
The Texas Association of School Board wrote all of TCC’s policies; college administrators were involved in the policymaking process. All community colleges in Texas are part of the association, and most have policies that the group created or maintains.
‘HR should have been in that room’
Bennett, the former executive vice president of advancement, was brought to the college to lead its separate nonprofit, the TCC Foundation. She was handpicked to lead the foundation, an entity the chancellor argued needed new leadership.
Giovannini and Bennett had a good working relationship for nearly a year, she said. It all changed after Bennett disciplined an employee she supervised several times for her workplace behavior. What Bennett did not know was that the employee had an inappropriate relationship with Giovannini, according to the lawsuit.
In late August, Giovannini placed Bennett on a performance improvement plan. In an interview with the Report, Bennett described the plan as Giovannini grasping at straws to find a way to punish her for disciplining the employee the lawsuit describes as his girlfriend.
Over the next few months, Bennett met with Giovannini in his office to go over her improvement plan. The chancellor’s demeanor worsened, according to court documents.
Giovannini’s anger pushed Bennett to fear losing her job and professional reputation and ultimately caused her to resign. The emotional toll was too much.
She later rescinded her resignation, and TCC’s human resources department placed Bennett on administrative leave. Bennett officially left her job on Jan. 31.
Bennett’s lawsuit is focused on Giovannini’s alleged retaliation against her for reprimanding the woman with whom he had an intimate relationship.
TCC has asked a federal judge to dismiss Bennett’s lawsuit. A key point the college’s lawyers argue is that Bennett was an at-will employee when she attempted to resign and later rescinded it. Bennett’s contract had not been renewed at that point because Giovannini placed her on the improvement plan. Because she attempted to resign, the lawyers wrote, Bennett was exercising her right as an at-will employee to quit at any time.
Other due process cases
Jeff McDonald, a former EMS program director, spent 40 years of his life working at TCC. His time there came to an end in 2020 after he was placed on a performance improvement plan and later was informed his contract would not be renewed, according to court documents.
The Giovannini-signed letter, which was sent in late March, did not tell McDonald the reasons for why his contract was not renewed, according to a lawsuit. McDonald, a tenured professor, asked for a due process hearing as well as the reasons for the non-renewal. He did not have his hearing — which is when he learned TCC’s justification for ending his employment — until late July, according to court documents.
McDonald learned of why he was essentially being fired during that meeting. Administrators argued McDonald did not complete nor comply with his performance improvement plan, leading to his termination. The plan was expected to run from July 2019 to February 2020.
However, about September 2019, McDonald was reassigned to another role, according to court documents. McDonald’s supervisor continued to check in on his performance. At one point, his supervisor said McDonald was improving and there were no new issues, according to the lawsuit.
“At the conclusion of the hearing, the tribunal of Mr. McDonald’s peers deliberated and came to a unanimous decision that the chancellor should reconsider his decision to non-renew Mr. McDonald’s contract and terminate his tenured employment with the college,” the lawsuit reads.
TCC pushed on with its decision to fire McDonald, who appealed to the board of trustees. The board heard his case in closed session on Sept. 17, 2020.
Five days later, Weatherford College announced the hiring of McDonald as its EMS program coordinator.
McDonald did not respond to interview requests.
‘Their minds were already made up’
In late summer 2020, TCC fired Matthews, a printing services director, for leaving his licensed concealed handgun on his desk while he used the restroom. An employee submitted a complaint about the gun, according to a lawsuit. Texas allows licensed residents to carry their concealed handguns on college campuses.
Over the course of a few days, Matthews was placed on paid administrative leave as the human resources department investigated the complaint and eventually he received a letter from Giovannini informing the director he was fired, according to court documents.
Matthews hired Hill and filed a lawsuit over his termination in September 2020. In the lawsuit, Hill wrote that Giovannini failed to follow TCC’s policies. The chancellor did not give Matthews reasonable notice in writing before he was fired and did not have a good cause for the termination, he said.
Matthews recognizes he made a mistake when he left his gun on his desk. However, the ensuing days and subsequent firing were, as he describes it, ridiculous. He tried appealing the chancellor’s decision by going to the board of trustees — an opportunity Matthews got only because he hired a lawyer. Hill, Bennett’s attorney, also represented Matthews.
“It didn’t matter. Their minds were already made up,” Matthews said. Hill “literally told them several times, ‘You know, give the man his job back, and we’ll drop the lawsuit’ — and they didn’t.”
In a December opinion, a federal judge said TCC violated Matthews right to due process when it did not tell him it was considering termination.
Matthews received $60,000 from TCC as part of an agreement, he told the Report. The agreement was confidential, Hill said.
‘Bigger than me’
Bennett says she is not fighting her lawsuit for herself. She’s doing it so others can come forward and tell their stories.
That selflessness is at the heart of how Bennett sees herself.
She grew up in poverty in a small Appalachian town in Ohio, and became the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and a doctorate.
She did all of that because she wanted to help people who went through similar upbringings and show them success is possible in life regardless of where they come from.
“This is bigger than me. This is bigger than the cost to my family,” she said. “Even if we don’t get a financial reward from this, I will be happy as long as justice is served — and the corrupt individuals at the institution are out of there.”
Hill agrees that Bennett’s fight — and his decades of work — against TCC is bigger than he and his clients. At the end of the day, the college is costing taxpayers money. In Bennett’s case, the college has already spent more than $50,000 for a law firm conducting an investigation — with the potential that cost could increase to $200,000.
Besides the money, Hill says Tarrant County residents need to be concerned about due process at the college.
“All decent human beings should have some concern over due process — not just at Tarrant County College, not just as employees, but in every aspect of our relationship with government,” the lawyer said. “Tarrant County College is the government, and every citizen ought to have concern about whether the government treats its citizens with due process.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on March 29, 2022, to add that a federal judge determined TCC violated one former employee’s right to due process.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.