Lawyers Say Class Action Possible Over How Vanderbilt Chose Who To Fire

Roger Sparks spent the last two decades at Vanderbilt, and wonders if his age and relatively high hourly wage weren't factors in the decision to fire him. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

Roger Sparks spent the last two decades at Vanderbilt, and wonders if his age and relatively high hourly wage weren’t factors in the decision to fire him. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

Two prominent Nashville lawyers say Vanderbilt University Medical Center may have broken the law in how it fired some 300 workers this summer.  The attorneys say there may be grounds for a class-action lawsuit, if Vanderbilt discriminated over age or the use of family or medical leave.

Vanderbilt says it’s had to trim its budget, because federal funding for research is down, along with reimbursements for uninsured care, and the state has so far passed up expanding Medicaid.  (You can read remarks out this week from Jeff Balser, vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, on what he essentially deems the collapse of a healthcare bubble, here.)

Vandy officials say they picked who to fire based on performance, but Roger Sparks is not buying it.

“I had no idea – it caught me by surprise, just shock, didn’t know anything was coming.  They made me think everything was hunky-dory and everything was okay…”

Sparks is 52, and was making about $18 an hour cleaning cages, mostly for lab mice.  Civil Rights Attorney George Barrett says Sparks seems to reflect a pattern.  Barrett, along with former U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin, says they’ve heard from more than a dozen dismissed Vandy workers.  They say use of family and medical leave may have been a factor in the firings.  If so, it’s illegal, as are age and ethnicity.

“There are a number of them over the protected age category, 40 and over.  We’re looking into the racial aspects of it…”

Barrett says it’s too soon for details of a possible lawsuit, but with hundreds more potential firings from Vanderbilt in the pipeline, he’ll be watching closely.

RAW AUDIO: Click below to play raw audio from the press conference, or here for a direct MP3 download.

Vanderbilt declined to offer a general statement afterward, but an official pointed for context to the remarks this week from Vice-Chancellor Balser.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of civil rights attorney George Barrett as ‘Ray.’  WPLN regrets the error.

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