I have posted numerous times before about the case of Lawrence Connell, the Widener Law School Professor who was placed on one-year unpaid leave and forced to undergo a psychiatric examination as a condition of return.
The short story is that Connell was vindicated by a university panel of allegations of race and sex discrimination, but found to have “retaliated” against the two complaining students by circulating an e-mail to the student body defending himself and having his lawyer threaten to sue the students. Connell has sued Ammons as well as the two students, and the case was filed in Sussex County, Delaware.
Sussex County is the most conservative county in Delaware. While the state went 57-40 for Democrat Chris Coons in 2010, Sussex County went 57-40 for Republican Christine O’Donnell. The jury for the trial thus would be drawn from the most conservative pool in the state.
Understandably, Ammons attempted to have the case moved out of Sussex County to New Castle County, a more urban and more liberal venue. New Castle County went 66-31 for Coons.
Here, the students alleged, among other things, that the use by Connell of terms such as “black folks” evidenced racial animosity and created a hostile environment, while Connell says there was nothing subjectively or objectively hostile about the phrase or any of the other language which the students and Widener administration deemed “racially insensitive.”
Juror perceptions could be key not only as to whether referring to a group as “folks” is pejorative, but also as to the reasonableness of Ammons’ actions and punishment. It is not hard to imagine a rural conservative jury pool thinking “folks” is a term of endearment while an urban liberal jury pool may find it odd at best.
In a major win for Connell, a Delaware judge earlier this month denied Ammons’ request to move the case to New Castle County, finding that under Delaware law Connell’s choice of venue was to be given great weight and Ammons had not made a sufficient showing to overcome that choice:
Quite simply,any inconvenience is minimal as to Ammons and the other defendants, and is certainly no greater than the inconvenience that Connell faces. Given all of this, I find that Connell‘s choice of forum should be respected and that it would not be an undue inconvenience for Ammons, or any of the other defendants, to attend trial in Georgetown.
These sort of venue battles can be critical in a highly charged case as this, where juror political leanings and outlooks may influence how they see issues.
Connell’s attorney Thomas Neuberger was not shy about the significance:
[V]enue was the one bullet in Dean Ammons gun. She has fired her gun and she missed the target.
I will continue to follow this case as it heads towards trial … in Sussex County