In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Washtenaw County jury awarded Kate Ernsting, the former Ave Maria College financial aid director, about $418,000. Ernsting had sued the College for firing her for cooperating with a U.S. Department of Education (USDOEd) investigation of the College’s financial aid program. Her day in court had finally come after seven years of waiting.
In 2003 Ave Maria College was to be expired after a time period before the transition to Ave Maria University was to take place in Naples, Florida.
The jury decided that the College violated whistleblower state law that is to protect employees “who point out wrongdoing in their workplace.” The award is still calculating: $400,000 in lost wages, an amount for damages, and attorney and interest fees, for a total award that should become quite higher.
The College’s attorneys had been delaying the case for seven years. Ernsting filed the lawsuit after the USDOEd fined the College $250,000 for “improperly issued financial aid .”
The jury did not believe the closing argument of the defendant that the decision to fire (layoff) Ernsting was not retribution but was the plan to fulfil transition to the newly established Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. Although at the time Ernsting was one of five who were fired, two of the five were plaintiffs, but one dropped out because of high legal costs.
During closing arguments, Ernsting’s lead lawyer Joseph Golden told the jury, “My client is an honest, moral individual who has been injured because of her honesty and morality. To say there was animosity would be the understatement of this trial.”
The school’s lawyer, Karl Fink, declined to comment after the verdict.
At the end of the trial, Fink asked the jury to look beyond the allegations to the good reputation of Monaghan. “I ask you to look at the character of the people being maligned here. No reference has been made during this trial to the incredible charity of Mr. Monaghan. Only that it has been said, ‘It’s his way or the highway.'”
Testimony indicated that Ernsting and the others refused to follow the orders of their superiors to alter the records and stop talking to the investigators. Ernsting and three others who cooperated with USDEd investigators were among five fired after a lunch break. The Board of Directors did not agree with Thomas Monaghan that the College’s president, Robert Muller, should be fired.
According to the College’s attorney, Karl Fink, the College’s financial aid department, that Ernsting headed, had continued to run and the decision to shut it down proved to be incorrect.