A former employee of the for-profit college The Art Institute of Tucson has filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the school of discrimination and wrongful termination.
Joi N. Stirrup filed the complaint on Aug. 29 in U.S. District Court in Tucson. She said the poor treatment she received forced her to resign from her job as school registrar after she repeatedly brought to the attention of supervisors improper accounting practices that needed addressing.
“She left voluntarily, but they made it nearly impossible for her to do her job,” Stirrup’s attorney Jerry S. Smith said.
The complaint says the school engaged “in the practice of not documenting or reporting the cancellations of newly enrolled students” for the purpose of retaining Pell Grants funds, tuition payments from lenders, and Arizona Department of Economic Security or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits even after students dropped out.
Stirrup also says The Art Institute of Tucson improperly inflated or overstated the class loads of some students to maximize the amount of federal and state education funds it received.
After informing her superiors of the irregularities, Stirrup said, treatment of her at work began to deteriorate.
The complaint against the school says Stirrup’s workload was continually increased after she brought up the tuition-receipt issues to the point where she had difficulty keeping up.
In the filing, Stirrup also said she was precluded from attending normal staff meetings she previously attended.
She says one of her superiors complained to fellow employees that she had “thrown him under the bus,” and later instructed colleagues not to communicate with her in writing.
Smith said the treatment of his client represented an absolute change, having been to that point a valued employee.
“They felt strongly enough about her to bring her from another campus and make her registrar,” Smith said, noting Stirrup had previously worked for the company in Hawaii.
Attorney Joseph A.
Kroeger, who represents The Art Institute of Tucson, would not comment.
The lawsuit names Education Management LLC and Education Management Corp., which owns The Art Institute of Tucson and more than 100 other schools with 132,000 students in the U.S. and Canada. The 51 schools operating under the Art Institute name have been the most financially successful, collectively reporting more than $1.5 billion in revenue in fiscal 2013.
Former employees of the company have filed lawsuits similar to Stirrup’s in federal courts in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Texas.
The U.S. Department of Justice also has sued the company, accusing it of violating federal regulations forbidding compensation to college recruiters based on the volume of students they bring in.
The Justice Department suit said Education Management’s practices resulted in enrollment of unqualified students and high rates of dropout and default on federally supported loans.
The company’s 2013 SEC filing shows federal financial aid made up 79 percent of its revenues, totaling more than $1.9 billion.
In response to the Justice Department lawsuit, the company denied any wrongdoing and promised to mount a vigorous defense.
Stirrup seeks unspecified damages, including punitive damages and lost income.
Smith said his client has experienced difficulty finding employment since she left The Art Institute in May. He suspects the lawsuit could make finding work even more difficult.
“This has put the brakes on a promising career,” he said. “Whistle-blowers aren’t exactly prime candidates.”