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Sunday, November 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Federal jury finds for Gonzaga over bulldog owner in civil discrimination case

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 11, 2019

Joann Waite gives her English bulldog, Maddie, a kiss during an interview in 2017 when Waite announced Maddie’s advanced cancer diagnosis. Waite’s use of Maddie as a service dog, which Gonzaga University also used in marketing images, is at the heart of a civil discrimination lawsuit in federal court in Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Joann Waite gives her English bulldog, Maddie, a kiss during an interview in 2017 when Waite announced Maddie’s advanced cancer diagnosis. Waite’s use of Maddie as a service dog, which Gonzaga University also used in marketing images, is at the heart of a civil discrimination lawsuit in federal court in Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

In the multimillion-dollar civil case of the bulldog versus Gonzaga University, the university prevailed Friday.

After a weeklong trial, a federal jury found Gonzaga did not discriminate against Joann Waite, who is the former director of sponsored research. She had alleged Gonzaga officials discriminated against her for her disability and use of a service dog, Maddie. She also alleged the school retaliated against her after she raised concerns about how the university treated women employees.

“We are pleased with the outcome,” said attorney Matthew Crotty, who argued the case on behalf of Gonzaga. “I want to thank the jurors for their service and in coming to a just verdict.”

Waite filed the federal civil lawsuit in 2017 after she left Gonzaga following 10 years of employment. Waite suffers from diabetes and used Maddie as a service dog to help let her know when her blood sugar needed attention. According to court testimony, Waite had helped raise $28 million over 10 years in her role as director of sponsored research.

But Waite said her job turned into a nightmare in 2016 after someone complained about her dog. About the same time, Waite and another employee complained to superiors about how the university treated female employees older than age 40.

“At this point is when Joann got a target on her back,” attorney Matthew O’Laughlin told the jury Friday. “It speeds up after Joann complains about the treatment of women over 40.”

In 2013, Waite suffered a fall on campus and university officials provided her ergonomic equipment, including a sit-stand desk to help accommodate her disability. But the university placed Waite on administrative leave in 2016 after she questioned the treatment of other female employees.

When she returned in late 2016, Waite’s supervisor, Ron Large, had arranged to replace her sit-stand desk with one described by her attorneys as “child-like” that was 24 inches tall. Waite testified that it caused her pain to sit at the desk.

“Joann Waite was the director of a department, and employees under her had better desks than her. It was undesirable and offensive,” O’Laughlin said. “They are singling her out because of her disability. Who was behind all of this? Dr. Large, who denied knowing anything about it.”

Crotty, who helped argue the case along with Michael Love, told the jury that Large “is not a villain. Forgetful? Perhaps. Misguided? Perhaps. He gave (Waite) a second chance. That is not what a bully does.”

Crotty blamed Waite for the desk situation. According to witnesses, Gonzaga did not give the equipment to another employee. They put it in storage before giving her the small desk.

Waite “brought that on herself by not responding to four requests for documentation,” Crotty said. “When you ignore four requests, you are inviting consequences. Once Dr. Waite provided the documentation, the desk was given back.”

In his closing argument, O’Laughlin, who argued the case with Spokane attorney Heather Barden, said Gonzaga officials had used images of Waite’s bulldog, Maddie, for marketing purposes without permission.

While school officials initially welcomed Waite’s use of the the dog, which students sought out for photo opportunities, supervisors used the dog in the campaign to remove her, according to court testimony.

O’Laughlin asked the jury to award up to $4 million for emotional distress and more money for lost wages and future wages. But with the verdict Friday, the jury found Waite had not proven that Gonzaga discriminated or retaliated against her. As such, it did not award Waite any damages.

U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastain addressed Waite before the verdict.

“Ms. Waite, I don’t know what the verdict is. It’s obvious you had a good career at Gonzaga,” Bastain said. “You have a family that loves you. You have every reason to be proud. You should not let your experience over the last two years define you.”

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