UT System faces lawsuit over layoffs

December 3, 2008 7:21:25 AM PST
A lawsuit filed Tuesday is asking that a decision by the University of Texas System to approve massive layoffs at a Galveston medical facility hit hard by Hurricane Ike be voided because it was made in violation of state law. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

The UT System Board of Regents announced on Nov. 12 that 3,800 people would be laid off at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

The lawsuit said the decision by the regents was illegal because it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act since it was done behind closed doors.

The act allows a governmental body to meet in executive session to discuss an individual officer or employee.

"Deliberations concerning a class or group of employees, however, must be held in open session," according to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the Texas Faculty Association and three individuals -- one current UTMB employee, one former worker and a Galveston business owner.

The regents said they were forced to make the job cuts because the teaching hospital was running out of money. Ike caused nearly $710 million in losses to UTMB and only about $100 million of the damage is covered by insurance.

Ike blasted ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13, flattening buildings and killing at least 37 people in Texas.

UTMB "is the economic epicenter of Galveston Island and Galveston County. It serve the entire state today," said Joe Jaworski, attorney for the plaintiffs. "The regents are making a political decision to starve the institution of the money necessary to rebuild it, making a decision to fire people instead of pursuing a real option to fix it."

The lawsuit is also asking why regents only bought $100 million worth of flood insurance for UTMB, and why some of the billions of dollars from the UT System's endowment fund and the state's budget surplus and rainy day fund couldn't have been used to financially restore UTMB and prevent the layoffs.

Anthony P. de Bruyn, a spokesman for the UT System, said he could not comment on pending litigation and referred questions to a statement issued by officials on Nov. 25 in response to a letter from Texas Daily Newspaper Association President Gary Borders to Regents' Chairman H. Scott Caven, Jr.

The association has said it believes the closed door meeting violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The statement, by Francie Frederick, general counsel to the regents, and Barry Burgdorf, vice chancellor and general counsel, maintained the regents did not violate the act.

"The Board understands and uses, when necessary, the construct of executive session as allowed by Texas law. To allege otherwise with no basis in fact is a disservice to the Regents and those who have an interest in and are impacted by the decisions they make," according to the statement.

The lawsuit also wants to examine whether the regents also illegally discussed in close session the pending layoffs at three others meetings held by telephone on Oct. 8, Oct. 27 and Nov. 6.

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