Kent State will pay a former vice president $154,000 in a settlement over dismissal

Image of the first page of Karen Clarke's settlement agreement with Kent State
Image of the first page of Karen Clarke's settlement agreement with Kent State

Kent State reached a settlement agreement June 28 with Karen Clarke, the former senior vice president for strategic communications and external affairs at the university, over a wrongful termination claim she filed in June 2020. 

Clarke was fired by Todd Diacon, president of the university, on Jan. 9, 2020. In court documents, she claims the university did not have enough cause to terminate her and that it did not follow its own guidelines for termination as laid out in her contract.

In its response, Kent State stated Clarke was “appropriately terminated for cause” and that Clarke’s inappropriate behavior while at work led to its final decision to fire her, according to court documents on the Ohio Court of Claims’ website.   

Read the settlement agreement here

According to the settlement agreement between Clarke and the university, Kent State will pay Clarke $154,000, about half her annual salary, and will cover all court costs but will not pay Clarke’s legal fees and does not admit any wrongdoing in regard to her complaint. 

Kent State also agreed to respond to future inquiries about Clarke’s employment that her termination was a management decision, rather than that she was fired for cause. The university also expressly denied in the settlement agreement the “validity, existence or occurrence” of the disputed claims made by Clarke. 

Kent State had no comment on the claim or the settlement, Eric Mansfield, the assistant vice president of university communications and marketing, said in an email.

Clarke was contacted for comment but declined, saying the settlement agreement does not allow her to speak on the subject. The agreement explicitly states there are “no other understandings or agreements between Clarke” and Kent State and does not state any non-disclosure terms.

Clarke filed an application for intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in December 2019 that included a signed affidavit from her physician, according to court documents. The reason for the leave application was not detailed in the lawsuit. 

Kent State informed Clarke Jan. 9, 2020, it “had decided to move in a different direction,” and was terminating her employment. Diacon told her at the time he was not firing her for cause, according to the complaint Clarke filed. 

Clarke’s contract stated that, if she was removed from her position for “reasons other than cause,” the university would have to pay her a “termination fee equal to the balance of the remaining salary” for the life of the contract, or one year of her salary, whichever was less. Terminations for cause could constitute any “violation of law, regulation, directive or university policy,” according to Kent State’s Administrative Policies

Clarke received a letter from Diacon dated Jan. 22, 2020, that informed her she was being fired for cause effective Jan. 31, 2020.

Diacon’s dismissal letter, which is part of the court record, said Clarke: 

  • Intimidated subordinates through her words and actions
  • Promised promotions to employees who were part of Kent State’s investigation into the complaints made against her by her employees
  • Used profanity directed specifically at subordinates 
  • Made inappropriate gestures behind employees’ backs 
  • Caused subordinates and other employees to feel humiliated and disrespected 
  • Failed to respect other employees’ time by canceling meetings without a good reason
  • Created a culture of fear among subordinate employees

Clarke denied that any of her actions rose to “the level of ‘cause’ to terminate her services under her written employment agreement,” according to the court documents.

However, an affidavit from Paul Jackson, an attorney with the Akron law firm Roetzel and Andress, which represented the university in the lawsuit, contains a copy of a report commissioned by Kent State to investigate the complaints made against Clarke by her employees. The report stated her employees said she threw computer mice at the wall when frustrated, used inappropriate language such as “f… it,” placed employees on a “disfavored list” she kept and lied about completing tasks when she had not even started them. The affidavit lists numerous behaviors the employees said they witnessed, along with how many employees said they witnessed them.

A number of employees in the department also made appointments with Kent State’s Division of Human Resources to discuss Clarke’s behavior, the affidavit states. Human resources noted this was “very unusual,” in that it had never received this many appointment requests “regarding the behavior of one individual, let alone a vice president,” according to the report. 

Clarke also claimed Diacon and Kent State “interfered with, restrained, or denied Clarke the attempt to exercise her rights” under FMLA because he fired her after learning about her application for leave, according to court documents.

Kent State denied the allegations made in Clarke’s complaint, according to court documents. 

Clarke’s employment contract states she was to be given “written notice of his/her proposed termination and be provided an opportunity to respond in writing within 15 days,” according to court documents. 

She claimed she was never given the chance to address any of the findings Diacon listed in his letter and was never allowed to explain or correct any of the allegations made against her.

“We don’t think that [Kent State] had cause to get rid of her in the first place, but even if they did, they didn’t follow the procedure that they promised they would follow,” said S. David Worhatch, Clarke’s lawyer, before the settlement was announced. “[Kent State] never gave her an opportunity to be heard. And so consequently, it was our position that she was still employed by the university until the end of her contract on Dec. 31, 2020.”

Kent State responded and said the appeal process only applies to a suspended employee. Clarke was fired without first being suspended, so the 15 days to appeal did not pertain to her situation, the university said.

Clarke worked under a three-year contract with Kent State that began Jan. 3, 2017, and was set to expire Dec. 31, 2020. She was paid $295,800 in salary, according to the latest figure available in her personnel file. She was also eligible for an annual performance bonus of $10,000 and received a monthly vehicle stipend of $650. 

The settlement agreement must still be approved by the Ohio Attorney General’s office before it is binding on the parties. 

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Gabriella Hagey is a reporter with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University, producing local news coverage in partnership with The Portager.