NACOGDOCHES, Texas (KETK) – A lawsuit filed against Stephen F. Austin State University, its Board of Regents and Interim President on Tuesday alleges a staff member was retaliated against by her supervisor for reporting racist behavior.

The lawsuit further claims a supervisor “compared SFA to the movie ‘Roots’ and stated that there were ‘field hands’ and ‘house hands’ working for him.”

Tammy Wheeler, who has worked at SFA since 2009, worked for 10 years as the House Coordinator in the Presidents House, and primarily worked under President Baker Pattillo in this role.

After Pattillo’s death, she was reassigned to SFA’s physical plant where she was assigned custodial work and reported to have witnessed numerous racist and racially charged statements to her and about other physical plant employees, who were predominantly Hispanic and Black, by the plant’s director at the time Ron Watson.

“Mr. Watson also likened himself to an overseer sitting on a horse with a big straw hat and a whip, overseeing the ‘hands,'” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Watson even referred to himself as ‘the field boss.'”

After a few months at the physical plant, Wheeler was reassigned to the SFA President’s Home as the House Coordinator. The university president at the time of her reassignment was Scott Gordon.

After a couple months back at the president’s house, the lawsuit states President Gordon’s wife began asking Wheeler to do a number of personal tasks including: giving personal manicures, doing the Gordon’s personal laundry, making beds, organizing the Gordons’ personal property, doing personal shopping for the Gordons and cooking President Gordon’s daily breakfast.

“When Ms. Wheeler was hired originally as the President’s House Coordinator, she was specifically told she worked for SFA, not the President, she was not a personal assistant to the President and his family,” the lawsuit said. “Ms. Wheeler was instructed that her duties were only related to ‘official’ tasks, such as public functions and activities, and to maintain, manage and clean the house.”

According to the lawsuit, many of the Gordons’ requests made Wheeler uncomfortable and she often refused to do them. It is also said the previous president and his family had never asked her to perform such highly personal tasks in her official capacity.

In the spring of 2020, the lawsuit states Wheeler began verbally expressing concerns to her supervisors about the Gordons’ behavior and in June, Mrs. Gordon asked Wheeler to be removed from her position. She was then reassigned to the physical plant.

After returning to the physical plant, Wheeler reported she was ridiculed and harassed by her direct supervisor after she told them she was unable to perform certain tasks due to her disabilities. She received accommodations from HR that the lawsuit alleges were ignored by her supervisor.

Wheeler then filed a formal complaint of discrimination and harassment with SFA. Shortly after her complaint, the university hired Littler Mendelson, P.C., an employment defense firm to handle the investigation, according to the lawsuit.

While a report issued by the firm found her claims to be “unsubstantiated,” it did find that numerous employees from the physical plant, including Watson, confirmed he had referenced the movie “Roots” while discussing a Black employee. According to the lawsuit, Watson was terminated after the report was issued.

In April 2020, SFA and President Gordon “mutually agreed to part ways” and according to the lawsuit, Gordon was paid $800,000 in severance.

A little over a month after Littler Mendelson issued their report, the lawsuit said Wheeler began receiving “an extremely negative performance evaluation” when prior to her complaint the same supervisor rated her job performance as “exemplary.”

“Unfortunately, retaliation against those who speak out is commonplace at SFA,” the lawsuit said. “The SFA administration promotes and maintains a culture of fear, intimidation and retribution.”

SFA responded to a request for comment, and said it is university policy not to comment on pending litigation.

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