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Judge says VCU can’t be held liable for age-based discrimination

Building in urban area
Part of VCU's Medical College of Virginia campus near downtown Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A Richmond judge tossed out an age-discrimination lawsuit brought by a Virginia Commonwealth University student. The doctoral student says she was treated differently than her younger peers and forced to withdraw from her program after being accused of plagiarism.

The Virginia Human Rights Act bars discrimination based on race, religion and age among other characteristics. But the ban doesn’t apply to the Commonwealth itself or its agencies - which includes public colleges and universities. That’s what attorneys for the state and VCU told Richmond Circuit Court Judge Clarence Jenkins Tuesday, when they asked him to dismiss the case.

Nichole Fogleman, who is in her 50s, is a former student at VCU’s College of Health Professions, says an adjunct professor in the program, Tyler Corson, accused her of plagiarism and forced her to withdraw from VCU. The actions, she says, were due to her age and, therefore, in violation of Virginia law. 

Fogleman asked the court for $250,000 in damages and to have her record of plagiarism expunged.

The state is shielded from lawsuits in most cases under the Sovereign Immunity doctrine, which is derived from the British monarchy. But Fogleman’s complaint says in the case of Virginia’s human rights law, the General Assembly “explicitly, necessarily and unavoidably intended the law to apply to the Commonwealth and VCU,” citing this section of the law:

“It is the policy of the Commonwealth to: Safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability in places of public accommodation, including educational institutions and in real estate transactions…”

The attorney general’s office submitted a memo in support of the state’s argument of immunity, agreeing that the Commonwealth and its agencies are shielded from liability unless the General Assembly explicitly waives that protection.

“…The General assembly could have expressly named the commonwealth in the Virginia Human Rights Act. It did not,” the memo stated.

VCU did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Tuesday.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.