Dixie State University, college officials reach settlement with terminated professor

Composite image. Dixie State University, Sept. 28, 2019, St. George, Utah | File photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — After years of litigation, Dixie State University and other institution officials have reached a settlement with a professor who maintains he was wrongfully terminated.

Former DSU professor Varlo Davenport filed a $20 million civil suit alleging multiple civil rights violations and breach of contract. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice last month, and the terms of the settlement are undisclosed.

The university confirmed that the case was settled last month in a statement to St. George News.

“The Davenport matter has been fully resolved as of Dec. 18, 2019,” according to the statement.

Davenport was fired from his 15-year tenured position at Dixie State after a student accused him of allegedly pulling her hair in a classroom acting class in November 2014. University President Richard “Biff” Williams upheld the decision to release Davenport from his position with the institution despite a faculty review board and the faculty senate clearing him of wrongdoing.

On behalf of the student, the City of St. George followed up with the accusations and filed criminal charges against Davenport. He was later acquitted of assault when a four-man jury issued a “not guilty” verdict after a two-day trial that began July 2016.

Following his acquittal, Davenport and his attorneys filed a complaint with federal courts in January 2017. The complaint named Williams, arts department Chairman Mark Houser, campus Security Chief Don Reid, board of trustees Chair Christina Durham, Utah Assistant Attorney General Michael Carter and 10 unnamed “John Does.”

DSU administrators and staff, including then-Executive Vice President William Christensen, Dean of Performing Arts Jeffrey Jarvis, Dean of Students Del Beatty, Vice President of Administrative Services Paul Morris, Media Relations Director Steve Johnson and Assistant Security Director Ron Isaacson were also named in the suit.

Varlo Davenport with a group of friends after receiving a not guilty verdict, St. George, Utah, July 14, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

The suit claimed that the university violated Davenport’s freedom of speech and right to due process and was filed based on information obtained in the release of more than 20,000 emails relating to Davenport’s firing and subsequent criminal charges.

The lawsuit asked Davenport to be reinstated to his tenured position at Dixie State, as well as for the defendants to pay costs, attorney fees, compensation for lost wages and punitive damages. The suit asked for $5 million for emotional distress, mental anguish and damage to Davenport’s reputation, as well as $15 million in punitive damages.

The case was closed after Davenport’s attorneys filed a stipulated motion for dismissal with prejudice on Dec. 17, 2019. United States District Judge Clark Waddoups signed the motion the same day. According to the motion, the defendants are responsible for paying their own costs and attorney fees as well as any of the plaintiff’s costs and attorney fees as described in the parties’ mutually agreeable settlement.

“I was looking forward to having our day in court and bringing this whole mess into the light. But with the vast resources the university had at its disposal, including in-house counsel, lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office and the high priced outside council that was also contracted to defend them, we simply ran out of resources and had no choice but to agreed to settle,” Davenport told St. George News. “The most significant thing to come out of the settlement is that the university agreed to retract the official statement they issued after I was exonerated.”

Varlo Davenport, left, and his attorney, Aaron Prisbrey, listen as a court clerk reads a not-guilty verdict, St. George, Utah, July 14, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

In the university’s statement, issued on July 14, 2016, Dixie State thanked Davenport for his contributions to the institution before affirming that he was fired in accordance with the university’s policies. Within the statement, the university also accused Davenport and his witnesses of perjury and alleged that Davenport was “on probation for aggressive behavior toward a fellow DSU employee.”

In his response, Davenport argued that in his 15 years at Dixie State he had never reached a second level corrective discussion, and he was not on probation. Additionally, no record of this probation existed in the HR file he received upon termination.

Davenport said he plans on sharing the thousands of pages of evidence, testimony from the trial and the depositions taken in preparation for the federal and state cases with the public as time allows.

“So much of this could have been avoided,” he said. “I loved my time at Dixie State and am very proud of the work we did there. I hope they can quickly come to a resolution with Dr. (Ken) Peterson.”

Ken Peterson filed a federal complaint on Aug. 19, 2019, after his dismissal in March 2018. Peterson alleges that his termination and the disciplinary actions taken against himself and Assistant Professor of Music Glenn Webb was the cause of contention throughout campus in response to Davenport’s termination, including a protest, a last chance agreement and a faculty call to action.

Supporters of former Dixie State professor Varlo Davenport gather outside the Washington County Justice Court before the start of Davenport’s trial, St. George, Utah, July 13, 2016 | File photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

The suit names Williams, then-general counsel and Chief Legal Officer Doajo Hicks, Provost Michael Lacourse and Assistant General Counsel Lynn Joseph as well as several “John Does” and “Roe Entities.” The university is also named within the suit.

Another former employee, Dixie State women’s soccer coach Kacey Bingham, filed a federal civil suit against the university, athletic director Jason Boothe, Joyce Firestack, Hicks, Rick Smith and associate Athletic Director and Senior Women’s Administrator Maureen Eckroth in May 2019 after the athletics department announced it would not be renewing her contract. Bingham had a 5-year tenure with the university at the time.

The suit alleges that the university and the listed personnel discriminated against Bingham on the basis of sex and demands $75,000. As of Dec. 28, 2019, a notice of stipulated mediation was filed, indicating the parties intend to participate in mediation before Senior Judge Dee Benson prior to Jan. 20.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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