Emerson#039;s journalism law expert suing college

by Beacon Staff • April 22, 2009

An Emerson professor has filed a lawsuit alleging the college misrepresented the eligibility policies for its health insurance plan.

In the lawsuit, Laurie Ruskin, a part-time professor who teaches Journalism Law and Ethics, says the college told her she was qualified for year-round health coverage based on the credits she had taught-then took away her insurance at the end of the fall term because she would only be teaching one course in the spring. Ruskin said she thinks Emerson handled the situation unfairly by waiting until winter break to both notify her and terminate her health benefits.

"If I was on vacation, I could have come back and discovered I had no health insurance," Ruskin said. "I could have lost it without ever knowing."

But Emerson officials say the adjunct faculty union's contract, which was first ratified in 2004, makes it clear Ruskin's course load made her ineligible to continue receiving college-supported benefits.

"The college believes the lawsuit is without merit and is confident it will prevail in this matter," former Vice President of Public Affairs David Rosen told iThe Beacon/i prior to leaving his position.

Last fall, Ruskin said she received a letter from Emerson indicating she had taught the 64 credits necessary to be eligible for the College's health coverage. Emerson pays half the cost of a faculty member's medical plan, along with the entire cost of the dental plan, according to the union's agreement with the college.

The course Ruskin teaches is required for all journalism majors. Ruskin says the college dictates her teaching schedule, which typically includes two classes in the fall, one in the spring, and one during summer session.

But in order to keep the Emerson-supported health plan, the adjunct faculty union's agreement says Ruskin's summer school course would not be counted toward the 16 credits required each academic year to keep the benefits.

"Other professors could work just as hard as I do and come away with more compensation," Ruskin said.

Ruskin alleges the college misrepresented its criteria by telling her she was eligible for it on a yearly basis and not indicating otherwise in her teaching agreements.

"The college knows my schedule. They should have said they could give me benefits, but only for the fall semester," Ruskin said.

On December 22, the day the Fall 2008 term officially ended for faculty, Ruskin found out she was in danger of losing her health insurance. An e-mail from the college, obtained by The Beacon, notified her that teaching only one course in Spring 2009 would disqualify her from receiving benefits. It warned that her health insurance would be terminated nine days later.

The e-mail said she would be eligible for COBRA, a federal healthcare program that typically supports workers who lose their health insurance because of layoffs. COBRA is more expensive than Emerson's coverage but typically less than private insurance.

"Ms. Ruskin was eligible to receive continued coverage at her own expense under COBRA. Since health insurance could continue, no irreparable harm would be done," said Rosen. "The appropriate remedy specified in the contract is to file a grievance through the union. She chose to file a lawsuit."

Ruskin didn't file a grievance initially because she was notified of the termination during winter break and couldn't quickly reach union representatives, according to court documents.

After being denied a restraining order that would temporarily stop Emerson from taking away her insurance, Ruskin, who is representing herself, filed the lawsuit in Newton District Court.

The attorney hired by the College, Arthur Telegen of the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw, successfully requested the case be moved to the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. Court documents filed by Telegen say Ruskin's claims belong in federal court because they relate to federal labor laws.

Telegen then filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Telegen referred questions from iThe Beacon/i to Rosen.

Ruskin has filed a motion requesting the case be moved back to Newton District Court, and said her lawsuit isn't about interpreting the adjunct faculty union's contract.

"Misrepresentation has nothing to do with that," Ruskin said. "If the college read the provisions correctly, why did it tell me I was eligible for health benefits on a yearly basis?"

Currently, Ruskin and the College are waiting for a judge to decide whether the case should remain in U.S. District Court, return to Newton District Court, or be dismissed altogether.