Morgan adviser claims harassment by coach Suit alleges Diggs made advances

April 13, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

Elizabeth Stearns, the former Morgan State athletic academic coordinator whose verbal harassment complaint last year led to a reprimand against football coach Ricky Diggs, yesterday filed suit against Diggs and the university, claiming that her recent demotion stemmed from her rebuffing alleged sexual advances by the coach.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, accuses Diggs and the school of sexual harassment and discrimination and seeks $2 million in punitive damages. She also said in the suit that she "worked in an atmosphere that was hostile toward women" and claimed her demotion last month and her arrest by campus police last year were in retaliation for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the school.

Diggs could not be reached for comment on the suit, which first was reported yesterday by Channel 45. Joe McIver, Morgan's interim athletic director, said last night the school had not received a copy of the suit, which also lists the state of Maryland and Raymond Downs, the school's vice president of student affairs, as defendants.

"We haven't been served yet," McIver said. "When we are served, the matter will go to the university counsel, and it will be handled as a legal matter."

Stearns, 29, was removed from involvement with the football team last November, one week before 69 Morgan football players signed a petition calling for the firing of Diggs and, among other demands, seeking Stearns' reinstatement. One day later, Stearns filed her charge of verbal harassment against Diggs, threatening to follow with a civil suit if the university's response did not meet her approval.

That legal action comes three weeks after Stearns, who came to Morgan from a private girls school in Dallas, was demoted to academic adviser. Her official title had been academic coordinator for intercollegiate athletics.

The 22-page lawsuit details alleged sexual harassment that she says began shortly after assuming her job on Aug. 1, 1991.

Stearns alleged that on Sept. 13, 1991, she refused a request by Diggs to come to his hotel room and have a drink during a road trip to Daytona, Fla. The following week, during a road trip to Ohio, "in the interest of culturing a positive working relationship with the football coach," Stearns said, she had dinner with Diggs in his hotel room. At that time, the suit alleges that "Diggs made sexual advances . . . by trying to kiss her and commented that he wanted to 'roll around the bed' " with Stearns.

Over a six-week period, the suit claims, Diggs made about four early-morning calls to Stearns' home, "requesting a sexual relationship." Stearns said she refused, telling Diggs that his advances were pointless.

According to the suit, a heated exchange between the two on Nov. 4, 1992, led Diggs to tell Stearns: "I'll do whatever it takes to get you fired. If I can't get you fired, I'll make your life a living hell." Stearns alleges that, on Nov. 9, in front of students, Diggs said: "I'm going to make sure everyone knows you're the field house whore," and that she replied "in a restrained fashion that he was only out to get her because she wouldn't sleep with him."

A Nov. 12 meeting with Downs and Diggs led to Stearns' being told that she no longer would serve as academic coordinator for the football players, the suit says. Stearns said she continued with an internal complaint against Diggs, and was told by "counsel for Morgan State University" that there was support for "six separate instances of sexual harassment" by Diggs, but that the only action that could be taken was "to put a letter of reprimand" in his file, the suit says.

Stearns filed the EEOC complaint on Dec. 11. On Dec. 21, she claims Morgan State campus police officers came to her office, handcuffed her and took her to the Baltimore City Jail "on the premise of having a warrant," which she says was a "minor campus violation for which a $10 fine was outstanding." In the suit, Stearns said she was strip-searched and detained for three hours, after which she was released.

She eventually was transferred from the athletic department on March 22.

In addition to the $2 million in punitive damages -- $500,000 each on counts of discrimination, false arrest, false imprisonment and defamation -- Stearns also is seeking reinstatement to her old position.

Under the advice of her attorney, Christyne Neff, Stearns said she would not go into much detail about the suit when reached last night. But she says she enjoys her work with student-athletes.

"I love what I do, and it's rewarding. Student-athletes are a unique population that needs special attention," Stearns said. "I do miss my job."

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