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Insects and professors

What do Orkin and KSU have in common? Lawsuits

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Ah, the end of the year. Time to tie up loose ends.

First, some New Year's Eve debugging. In September, I wrote about curious affairs involving America's best-known pest terminator, Orkin. The Atlanta-based company, in hundreds of thousands of contracts with customers, promises to annually inspect properties after treating them for termites. If more wood-eating vermin are found, Orkin vows (depending on the contract) to either retreat the property or repair any damage.

In a swarm of litigation, however, customers are claiming that Orkin violated its pledges. The company's response has been that the claims represented isolated incidents. Even with multimillion-dollar-plus judgments, Orkin's $671 million in revenues and $36 million in profits last year were hardly threatened.

Now they are.

A Florida judge on Dec. 16 pinned a giant target on Orkin's red diamond. The judge said there were sufficient facts to transform individual lawsuits into a class action. Now, instead of customers seeking relatively minor sums to settle individual complaints, Orkin faces a bill that could run as high as $150 million.

The question that CL raised in our report -- and one that Orkin won't answer -- is how did a company known for quality and integrity descend into actions that reflect the worst of corporate America. For example, Orkin executives fretted in an internal memo that "fraud, theft and forgery" by employees were getting out of hand. Depositions by ex-employees documented that properties weren't being re-inspected and that customers' signatures had been forged on re-inspection forms. Evidence emerged from a Baptist church in the hamlet of Winton, N.C., to apartment houses in Tampa to homeowners right here in Cobb County that, rather than repair termite damage, the company merely covered it up. Meanwhile, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist is probing allegations that the company's actions amount to racketeering.

Orkin's new boss, Glen Rollins, gives every indication of wanting to clean up the nastiness that occurred under his father, Gary. But his reforms have yet to extend to notifying customers that they may have been scammed .

Now those customers are likely to get the word, despite Orkin's furious efforts to keep its legal disputes quiet. Floridians who have called the Orkin Man soon will get letters from the Anti-Orkin Men -- lawyers who've won class-action status for their lawsuits.

In Tampa, Circuit Court Judge Emmett Battles ruled that litigation brought by two homeowners qualified for class-action status. The case contends that Orkin's alleged false advertising, misrepresentations and forgeries qualify the plaintiffs to seek treble damages under civil racketeering laws.

"This is a company that still doesn't want to deal with the truth," says attorney Dan Clark, who represents the class-action plaintiffs.

Orkin spokeswoman Martha Craft says Orkin will appeal. That's been the company's strategy -- to doggedly drag unhappy customers through lengthy and expensive litigation. The Florida litigation already has gone through two appeals.

But Orkin's propensity for what Clark calls "all-out litigation war" appears to be backfiring. The company often prevails in disputes, but it's lost verdicts as high as $2.3 million in a 1999 Alabama case and $2 million in a recent Jacksonville case. Now, it faces class-action litigation that seeks actual damages of $50 million and punitive damages of as much as another $100 million.

Looming next for Orkin is a similar fight in Georgia. Former Gov. Roy Barnes is seeking class-action status for his clients. Barnes has been uncharacteristically quiet -- due to a gag order obtained by Orkin. But the ex-guv promises fireworks once he is ungagged.

For more on Orkin, see www.atlanta. creativeloafing.com/2004-09-16/cover.html.

Speaking of vermin, let's take another look at what's under the rocks at Kennesaw State University, which is almost as prolific at generating acrimonious discrimination claims as it is in awarding degrees.

One woman -- a victim-turned-hero in my book -- has scored a few points and dollars from KSU (and indirectly from you, the Georgia taxpayer). As CL first disclosed almost two years ago, Elizabeth Boyd, a business-school secretary, was fired by department Chairman Kamal Fatehi, who then recounted the incident in a memo stating, "Fired the bitch."

Fatehi also exhibited his academic excellence by insulting a visiting Russian professor and allegedly showing sleazy computer photos to female employees. Although he was forced this year to step down from his chairmanship, Fatehi didn't lose a penny of his $123,520 salary. Meanwhile, KSU officials fought any attempt to do right by Boyd.

CL has learned that KSU has belatedly agreed to pay Boyd $50,000. She had wanted her personnel file purged of false and derogatory remarks by Fatehi. The university countered by offering to let Boyd "resign." That would amount to creating a false document, a bogus resignation letter, something that doesn't seem to trouble the KSU brass.

Taxpayers will be ponying up more cash for KSU's defense in another federal lawsuit, this one brought by a former KSU fundraiser, Associate Vice President Kathleen Neitzel. She labored for six years and won high marks from the school's grande dame, President Betty Siegel. Neitzel sought a promotion to vice president but was rebuffed. Then, according to her lawsuit, a man was hired without the university conducting a proper search or announcing an effort to fill the position.

Following his appointment, Neitzel was fired for creating a "hostile environment." As numerous cases and complaints by Jewish, black and female staffers have documented, creating hostile environments is standard operating procedure at KSU. Thus, if Neitzel really was guilty of creating a hostile environment, shouldn't she have been promoted?

"There's a fair amount of discrimination at Kennesaw State that is evident in previous cases," says her attorney, Robert McDonald. "They didn't want to consider a woman for the job."

Neitzel's case echoes that of former KSU music professor Hillary Hight Daw, who won a federal jury verdict of $1.1 million in August. Daw had claimed that despite her top performance, she gained the ire of KSU bosses by demanding pay equivalent to men in similar positions. The lawsuit argued that the university retaliated by stripping her of her duties and demoting her husband from a chairmanship at the school.

Lawyers whose clients have accused KSU of discrimination estimate the university has paid between $5 million and $7 million since a former department chairman, Candace Kaspers, won $750,000 after she was fired in the mid-1990s.

KSU attorney Flora Devine didn't return a phone call detailing my questions.

For CL's many KSU stories, go to atlanta.creativeloafing.com and search for "Kennesaw State."

We enter the New Year with daily exposes of the widening torture scandal in Iraq, Guantanamo and Afghanistan. Government memos obtained by the ACLU disclose that War Consigliore Donald Rumsfeld did -- and White House occupant George Bush may have -- personally authorized the torture.

Meanwhile, the number of American soldiers killed and wounded increases at an accelerating pace. And the Pentagon won't let the piles of Iraqi civilians be tallied. The lies, first about the weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's ties to al-Qaeda and now about the torture, haven't diminished.

And Bush & Co. still haven't caught Osama bin Laden. Our nation has been shamed by its leaders. Our flag has been soiled.

Happy New Year. Impeach Bush.

Group Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

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