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SUPREME COURT AGREES WITH LAWSUIT DISMISSAL AGAINST UND

A former UND aviation professor did not complain quickly enough when she was refused a promotion in the university's aerospace sciences school, the state Supreme Court says.

The high court, in a unanimous decision, upheld an earlier dismissal of Paula Cooke's lawsuit against the university. Cooke was tardy in filing a claim with the state Office of Management and Budget, the decision said.

State law requires someone who might sue the state over an alleged injury to notify North Dakota's budget office within six months of the injury. Cooke's claim was three months late, court documents indicate.

Cooke believed she had to go through UND's administrative appeals process before filing a state claim. But the court's decision, written by Justice Carol Ronning Kapsner, said Cooke was mistaken. The six-month time period began running after Cooke was denied the promotion in June 1998, Kapsner said.

Where an employee files a grievance for nonpromotion, and another person has been advanced to the position the employee seeks, the injury has definitely occurred, Kapsner wrote.

Moved to Colorado

Cooke has since left UND. Her attorney, William McKechnie of Grand Forks, said his client is now working in Colorado. The principle was the thing, McKechnie said Thursday. She's managed to do quite a lot better in the private sector.

McKechnie said state employees normally must go through an administrative appeals process before they may file a lawsuit. He said he had not seen a copy of the court's decision.

The Supreme Court, from what I understand, has decided you still have to tell the state you might sue them, even though you haven't completed the administrative process, McKechnie said. We're not happy with it, obviously. It looks like they're really clamping down on employees of the state, cutting their options out.

Cooke had applied to be the school's aerospace network director after the previous director, Michael Karim, resigned in April 1998. Henry Borysewicz was hired as interim director instead, even though Cooke, according to court filings, was considered next in line for the job.

Rumors of Resigning

Cooke believed she was denied the position because of what she said were unfounded rumors that she planned to leave UND soon. The talk was prompted by the resignation of her husband, UND professor Steven Williams, that spring.

Cooke complained to the university's affirmative action office in June 1998, saying she was the victim of discrimination because of her marital status. Her claim was rejected in November 1998. She resigned shortly afterward.

In March 1999, Cooke filed a claim notice with the state budget office, and followed up the following month with a lawsuit in state district court, seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

Northeast Central District Judge Joel Medd dismissed Cooke's lawsuit last July, saying he did not have jurisdiction to hear it.

Kapsner said it was not contradictory to require a claim filing before administrative appeals had been exhausted.

If the administrative process resolves the person's grievances, resort to the courts is unnecessary, she wrote. If the administrative process does not resolve the person's grievances, the person may then file a legal action.

Grand Forks Herald and Associated Press, December 24, 1999
 

Note: State law requires someone who might sue the state over an alleged injury notify a North Dakota state agency. However, the handling of such complaints leads to foot dragging and fear of employment reprisals, if one is even able to obtain legal assistance in such a matter.