The Look in Brief

Vanderbilt University sued for gender discrimination and retaliation

By: - September 30, 2021 3:12 pm
Scales of justice with back-light on wood table.

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A 25-year employee of Vanderbilt University has filed suit against the university for discrimination and retaliation on the basis of sex and gender identity and disability.

Olivia Ruth Hill, who was hired by Vanderbilt in 1996 to work in the university’s Facilities Plant, and her legal team filed suit Wednesday on nine counts. They claim the university violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Among other allegations is that Vanderbilt violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Tennessee Human Rights Act.

Hill transitioned from male to female in February 2019 after seeking gender-affirming care in late 2017 for gender dysphoria, which is covered by the ADA. Hill told several university administrators in mid-2018 that she would be working full time as a woman and undergoing transition-related medical care at the recommendation of her physician.

Complaint.ARR (1)

In June 2018, Mitch Lampley, director of Engineering and Technical Support for Plant Operations, met with Hill’s direct supervisor, Tim Cook, and her colleagues to notify them of her transition, the lawsuit says.

According to the suit, Cook began to refer to Hill as a “freak,” “it” and “weirdo” when discussing her with other employees almost immediately after the Lampley meeting and the work environment became hostile to Hill.

Hill had gender-affirming surgery in 2019. Upon her return to work, the harassment scaled up, says the suit. Allegations include an incident in which a salesman pulled Hill close to him and looked down her blouse at her breasts before telling her, “You have pretty eyes.” In another case, a colleague asked if Hill was a virgin. Hill says she reported the incidents to her superiors but no actions were taken to reprimand the workers engaging in the behavior.

Over the course of the next 18 months, Hill continued to be subjected to discrimination and harassment before being placed on administrative leave in December 2019, the lawsuit said. When Cook announced his retirement as Power Plant manager in April 2021, Hill applied for the job but was told she would not get it, with no explanation.

She remains on leave.

During her tenure at Vanderbilt, Hill, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, has held every position at the Vanderbilt Power Plant and helped write the Standard Operational Procedures for all equipment within it. In 2019, then-Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos presented her with the Vanderbilt Chancellor Heart and Soul Award for “going far beyond her job expectations while carrying out the spirit and mission of Vanderbilt in all they do.”

Hill is represented by Nashville attorneys Abby Rubenfeld, John Shefflen and Thomas Mew of the Atlanta firm Buckley Neal. Rubenfeld filed Tanco v. Haslam  in 2013, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same sex couples in Tennessee have the right to be legally married.

At publication time, neither Vanderbilt officials nor Rubenfeld could be reached for comment.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.


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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.