RALEIGH — Two Appalachian State University faculty members are part of a group of 17 other faculty and staff in the University of North Carolina system who are listed as plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order against the system filed on Aug. 10 in Wake County Superior Court.
The 99-page complaint requests that the court issue a declaratory judgment citing an increased risk of COVID-19 infection to employees as they are asked to work on campus. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order as well as preliminary and permanent injunctions to delay reopening public universities to in-person instruction.
The lawsuit was filed the first day that students were able to move back onto App State’s campus and just one week before classes resume with plans for both in-person and online classes. According to university spokesperson Megan Hayes, 900 students moved into residence halls on Aug. 10 with 1,050 more slated for the following day.
App State faculty members Clark Maddux, the director of the Watauga Residential College and a professor of interdisciplinary studies, along with Matthew Robinson, a professor in the Department of Government and Justice Studies, have both entered into the lawsuit as plaintiffs. Both Maddux and Robinson are members of the Faculty Senate at App State.
Hayes said the university is aware of the lawsuit that was filed, and that App State’s Office of General Counsel has compiled court-requested documentation and supporting materials. She added that the university will work closely with the UNC system Office of General Counsel. Requests for comment from the UNC system, Maddux and Robinson were not returned as of presstime.
The complaint stated that the conduct of the UNC system is “negligent, reckless and/or ultra-hazardous.” Arguments for the restraining order and injunction — outlined in the third claim for relief — stated that the injunction was sought to prevent institutions from violating an employee’s right under state law to a safe workplace that is free from recognized hazards or dangerous activities that are “likely to cause them injury or death.”
Gary Shipman, of Shipman and Wright LLP, the firm representing the plaintiffs, referenced N.C. General Statute 95-129, which states that employers “shall furnish to each of his employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury or serious physical harm to his employees.”
Shipman said that he doesn’t think that anyone disputes, or has scientific room to dispute, that reopening campuses to students increases the risk of UNC system employees’ exposure to COVID-19.
“There is no scientific evidence to support the notion that relying upon students to wear masks, self-report symptoms and social distance will keep employees and the communities where these campuses are located safe, and we already know that students (as a group) are not going to strictly comply with these requirements,” Shipman said.
The injunction also seeks positive action involving the change of existing conditions, including the doing or undoing of any acts that are necessary to protect the rights, health and safety of the plaintiffs and others.
Shipman said that those involved in making the decision to reopen the UNC system campuses did so with the knowledge that it places employees at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 than they would have otherwise been exposed to had the system limited the number of students on campus and held classes completely online to start fall 2020.
“We filed a lawsuit that seeks nothing more than what the law requires — that the University of North Carolina and its constituent institutions and the governor of North Carolina provide employees a safe workplace; one that is free from the increased risks of exposure to COVID-19; and to insure that these employees maintain their constitutional right to work and earn a livelihood; and continue to enjoy ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Shipman said.
Shipman added that the plaintiffs contend that the law does not permit the UNC system or Gov. Roy Cooper to force employees to “work in conditions that place them at an increased risk of getting sick, being unable to work, being hospitalized and even dying.”
The decision must be made to place the safety of employees and the communities where UNC system campuses are located above financial concerns associated with not returning students campuses, he said.