Motion seeks to move Willingham case to federal court
Attorneys at the N.C. Attorney General’s office wants the case brought by former athletics department learning specialist Mary Willingham against the University of North Carolina and the UNC-Chapel Hill moved to federal court.
Attorneys for the UNC System and UNC-Chapel Hill filed a motion Wednesday asking for the case to be moved from Wake County Superior Court to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
They argued that the federal court has original jurisdiction over the case because Willingham alleged a retaliation claim under federal law and under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in addition to making a state law retaliation claim.
"The university (filed a motion to move) Ms. Willingham's lawsuit to federal court on Wednesday because the case raises issues of federal law,” said Joel Curran, UNC-Chapel Hill‘s vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, in a statement. “She originally filed her claims in Wake County. We continue to believe the facts will demonstrate that Ms. Willingham was treated fairly and appropriately while she was employed at Carolina.”
In the lawsuit, Willingham, who was a learning specialist at the school and then assistant director of the school’s Center for Academic Success and Student Counseling, accused the UNC system and UNC-Chapel Hill of creating a hostile work environment in alleged retaliation for speaking out about her athletic academic concerns.
She demanded a jury trial, more than $10,000 in damages and reinstatement to her job at the university, with an injunction calling for retaliation to cease.
She had gained prominence by raising concerns about student-athlete literacy levels, asserting that many of those tested — especially in so-called "money sports" such as basketball and football — couldn't read above an eighth-grade level.
Willingham’s attorney J. Heydt Philbeck said he was satisfied with the decision to move the case to federal court. He added that he expects the state to file to try to get an additional 30 days to respond to the original complaint.