Academic adviser who claimed he was fired after raising concerns at NC State has lawsuit dismissed

NC State’s former director of academic support for athletes alleged discrimination in a lawsuit that was recently dismissed.
NC State’s former director of academic support for athletes alleged discrimination in a lawsuit that was recently dismissed.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by N.C. State’s former director of academic support for athletes against the university and UNC system, alleging racial discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination.

N.C. State fired Jermaine Holmes on April 9, 2015, a little more than a year after the university hired him as an associate athletics director in charge of the academic support program for athletes. Holmes filed his lawsuit last year, on the three-year anniversary of his firing.

On May 2, James Dever, a federal district judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina, dismissed all six of Holmes’ claims. Among those, Holmes, who is black, alleged retaliation, denial of equal protection under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, negligent supervision and infliction of emotional distress.

Reached by phone, Holmes’ attorney, Robert Lewis, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling. Holmes had been seeking an unspecified amount of punitive and compensatory damages.

In his lawsuit, Holmes alleged that he was fired after he addressed “pressing deficiencies related to the academic improvement of student athletes.” Those deficiencies, according the lawsuit, showed how N.C. State could be in violation of its own policies and NCAA rules.

In his complaint, Holmes named N.C. State, the UNC system, and Carrie Doyle and Michael Mullen, two N.C. State employees. Doyle is the athletic department’s compliance director, and Mullen a vice chancellor and dean of academic and student affairs.

Holmes alleged that mistreatment began after he shared several concerns with other administrators, including Debbie Yow, the former N.C. State athletic director who recently retired. Among Holmes’ concerns was that before his arrival, N.C. State had hired the daughter of an assistant basketball coach to be a tutor.

Holmes, according to his lawsuit, maintained that hiring Christine Lutz in 2013 violated N.C. State’s “best practices and conflict of (interest) policies.” Lutz is the daughter of Bobby Lutz, who was an assistant men’s basketball coach at N.C. State from 2011 to 2016.

In addition to the hiring of Christine Lutz, Holmes said he also raised questions about the staffing level of his department, and the workload of three interns, which his lawsuit described as “assistant coordinators,” who worked with the football and men’s basketball teams. Holmes identified those concerns, along with the ones about Lutz, during a department assessment before his start date at N.C. State.

During that assessment, according to his lawsuit, he discovered that the three interns worked between 50 and 60 hours per week “while getting paid for only 40 hours in violation of state and federal labor laws.” Eventually, Holmes also identified a need to hire a learning specialist to work with N.C. State’s “most at-risk group of student-athletes who have a varying degree of academic preparedness.”

Two months after Holmes began working at N.C. State, he wrote in a memo that his department’s top priority should be to provide more help to that group of at-risk athletes whose academic credentials have to be approved by a special admissions committee. In that memo, a portion of which was quoted in his lawsuit, Holmes wrote: “Since the fall of 2009, 60 student athletes have been admitted by way of special committee. For the fall of 2014, an estimated 13-15 more will be admitted. This would bring that growing number to 75. …

“Currently the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes does not have a specialist who can work with this population of students on a day to day regular basis. Our method of helping these young men and women is through our tutorial support program. Using tutors is often a great way to supplement, however enlisting tutors to work with our most at risk student population is not a best practice.”

According to Holmes’ lawsuit, his relationship with other N.C. State administrators, including Yow, grew contentious in October and November of 2014. That October, Holmes wrote an email to Yow, Doyle and Mullen, among others, that questioned how the university hired Lutz. That November, Holmes completed a “Tutor Oversight Report” that, according to court documents, “detailed what he believed to be factors that could lead to integrity and NCAA issues and violations.”

Holmes emailed the document, which later drew Yow’s ire, according to his lawsuit. The lawsuit described how “Yow publicly expressed her frustrations with Plaintiff for emailing the document and she was visibly upset.”

Fred Demarest, an N.C. State athletics department spokesman, said “the dismissal speaks for itself” and the department had no additional comment.

Holmes contended that when the university fired him in April 2015, it did so “without any prior warning that his position was in jeopardy.” He alleged in his lawsuit that “the Defendants singled [him] out by his race as an African American male,” and that he was treated “less favorably than similarly situated employees who are non-black.”

Upon Holmes’ dismissal, the university promoted Katie Sheridan, who is white, on an interim basis. Four months later, Sheridan accepted an offer to become the permanent director of academic support for athletes.

In dismissing Holmes’ claims, Dever, the judge, cited several procedural problems with Holmes’ arguments. The judge dismissed the claims against Mullen and Doyle, for instance, because Holmes “fails to allege a claim against Mullen or Doyle in their individual capacities.”

Dever followed the same logic in dismissing claims against the UNC system. He ruled, too, that the state’s sovereign immunity laws barred Holmes’ claims of violations of North Carolina law.

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.