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FAMU’s law school hit with discrimination, unequal pay lawsuit by female professor

Since it was reconstituted in 2000, Florida A&M University’s law school has struggled with image problems, including perceptions of academic quality and low bar exam-passage rates.

But the College of Law – based in downtown Orlando – bounced back in the last few years, finally receiving full accreditation from the American Bar Association, for example.

Now, a law professor is suing the school, alleging a variety of wrongs, such as discrimination, retaliation and salary inequalities.

Jennifer Smith, an associate professor hired in 2004, lodged her complaint in Leon County circuit court last Thursday. The suit was filed in Tallahassee because FAMU is headquartered here, the complaint says.

Smith accuses the university of eight violations of federal and state law on equal pay and gender discrimination, her suit says. She seeks unspecified damages, a promotion to full professor, attorney fees and other relief.

Her complaint says the law school “consistently hired men at considerably higher rates than women,” with male associate professors “paid considerably more” than females.

Smith says she was granted tenure in 2010, but has been repeatedly turned down for promotion to full professor ever since, starting that same year.

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Smith’s complaint says that an administrator “sabotaged” her promotion by replacing the good recommendations in her file with bad ones and then called other university officials to further torpedo any promotion.

She says her treatment was in part retaliation for submitting public record requests to the school for professor-pay information.

Her complaint also reveals she lodged a workplace-violence complaint against the same administrator, saying that person “made some threatening comments about her.”

Smith’s complaint quotes from a September 2012 ABA report on the law school that cited faculty concerns about an “inhospitable environment for women, lesbians and gay faculty members.”

Though the report noted that one administrator was asked to resign as a “remedial action,” professors’ concerns “about the administration and the inhospitable environment, particularly for female faculty, will remain a significant challenge.”

Smith says Dean LeRoy Pernell praised her teaching and scholarship this May, but by last month she learned she had been denied for promotion once again.

She wrote an email to FAMU President Elmira Mangum asking for a reason for the denial; Mangum “responded immediately” that she agreed with the decision not to promote Smith but didn’t explain why, the suit says.

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Smith has received largely positive reviews on the ‘Rate My Professors’ website, including one that called her “a top professor” at the law school.

Others say Smith, who does not allow students to take notes on computers, is a “good prof, but does not play … do not come to her class unprepared.”

Law professors are known for using the Socratic method, particularly on first-year students, firing a usually intimidating barrage of questions at students to test what they’ve read. And more are starting to ban laptops from the classroom, fearing the distraction from Web surfing and checking social media.

Smith couldn’t be reached at her Orlando office. Her attorney, Rick Johnson, wasn’t in the office Tuesday afternoon.

Pernell and a university spokesman have not yet responded to a request for comment. We’ll update this post when they do.

FAMU, a historically black university, had a law school from 1951-68 but it was shuttered by state officials.

It recreated its law school 32 years later with then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s approval and began admitting students in 2002.

The lawsuit is styled “Jennifer Smith v. Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University Board of Trustees,” case no. 2014 CA 2022.