Lawsuit alleges university regents violated law when laying off UTMB employees

John Suayan, Galveston Bureau Dec. 4, 2008, 3:12am

GALVESTON – A lawsuit filed by the Texas Faculty Association claims the termination of more than 3,000 employees at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston following Hurricane Ike was illegal.

Filed on Dec. 2 in Galveston County District Court, the TFA accuses the University of Texas Board of Regents of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act when it met behind closed doors in El Paso on Nov. 12 to discuss the possibility of mass layoffs at the 120-year-old medical institution.

Represented by Galveston attorney Joe Jaworski, the group seeks to have Galveston County 405th District Court Judge Wayne Mallia reverse the defendants' allegedly illegal decision and make public tape recordings and minutes of several meetings.

Jaworski told the Galveston County Daily News that the basis for the layoffs is unknown since system officials chose to meet in closed session.

Court papers say the regents conducted closed meetings by way of conference calls on three different occasions prior to the El Paso meeting.

In a Dec. 2 article in The Houston Chronicle, the defendants say their decision behind the job cuts is in response to UTMB's reported financial losses of $40 million a month since Ike came ashore on Galveston Island the morning of Sept. 13 with 110-mph winds and a 15-ft storm surge.

The Category 2 storm, which damaged numerous residences and businesses and rendering thousands of residents homeless, flooded approximately 750,000 square feet of the medical branch and left it with a $710 million price tag.

With many employees – many of whom Ike displaced – idle and the main hospital shuttered, UTMB was forced to burn through its cash reserves to stay afloat.

The terminations were supposed to occur a month after the storm, but city, county, and state leaders intervened.

A majority of the layoffs were at John Sealy Hospital, which now has 200 beds instead of 550 prior to Ike.

The lawsuit also contests the decision to ensure UTMB for only $100 million, which apparently could not cover the costs of Ike's destruction to the school.

State law prohibits governing boards from deliberating about classes of employees in executive session. But the law allows executive session deliberations about an individual employee unless the subject of the discussion requests a public hearing.

State law also allows governing boards in closed session to discuss legal ramifications of its contemplated actions.

In addition to a declaratory judgment, the plaintiffs also request a jury trial.

Case No. 08CV1195

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