May 9, 2012 — -- A Colorado woman claims she was unfairly fired from her job at a private, Christian liberal arts university after administrators asked if she was "living in sin" with her boyfriend.
Ashlie Simpson, 31, was a student service advisor at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo., from September 2009 until January 2012 when she was terminated.
"I was shocked to learn that CCU was concerned about my personal life, and even more distressed when they chose to fire me because of it," Simpson told ABC news. "When they refused to discuss it further, I felt I had no choice but to take legal action."
Simpson's attorney, Elwyn Schaefer, said a coffee break may have sparked offensive questions about his client and her lifestyle by university staff.
"We believe she was penalized for her lifestyle, mainly living with her boyfriend," Schaefer said. "We had attempted to approach [the university] prior to filing a lawsuit and were told the usual, that our case had no merit and they would defend it vigorously of course."
The suit, filed on May 2 with the Denver County District Court, states that Simpson and a married, male enrollment counselor had gotten coffee and donuts in the same car in June 2010; that incident led the vice president of development to express concern to Simpson about her alleged relationship with that married coworker – one Simpson said never existed --- and subsequent questions about her personal life up until she was fired.
That same day, the vice president told Simpson that he had discussed the "alleged relationship" with three of his team members, who had witnessed Simpson and the counselor "laughing and joking together in the office," according to the filing.
The vice president stated that Simpson was a "distraction to [the counselor's] marriage" and the "perception of indiscretion and disregard for the sanctity of Christian marriage" would hinder her career progression at the university, the suit stated.
Steve Miller, university counsel, said, "these are just false allegations."
"As you know, anybody can sue anybody for anything," Miller told ABC News. "We have an ample record demonstrating that she was let go for purely business reasons because she wasn't doing her job and she has chosen to [file a lawsuit]. That's about all we can say at this point."
Later, health problems caused Simpson to miss work, the suit states, but the university did not allow her to have the appropriate leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which can provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.
In February 2011, she was diagnosed with a herniated disc, severe muscle strain and degenerative disc disorder, the suit states, and inquired with the human resources department about her intent to file for leave under the FMLA.
The human resources director then asked Simpson questions "directly related to Simpson's private life including, but not limited to, whether Simpson was living with and having sexual relations with Simpson's boyfriend," the suit states, saying "this was potential grounds for termination."
One staff member stated that it was "standard knowledge among leadership and in their VP meetings that [Simpson] was living in sin and was a situation that finally needed to be dealt with," the suit stated.
Simpson said as a student service advisor for the university's College of Adult and Graduate Studies, she assisted continuing adult students, ages 23 and older, with questions about their degree plan and courses.
"She was basically an administrative person," Schaefer said. "She has a right to live her life outside the workplace as she wishes."
Simpson is suing for damages for her lost back pay, front pay, future benefits, personal humiliation, and mental anguish.
After complaining to her supervisor about the nature of her meeting with the human resources director, Simpson submitted her medical forms for FMLA approval in February 25, 2011 and received HR approval three days later, the suit states. She was then on "intermittent FMLA" during March, April and May 2011, the suit states.
In July 2011, the suit says Simpson was placed on a performance improvement plan for failing to meet her enrollment numbers the previous fiscal year when she was on FMLA leave, but she met her numbers during the next enrollment period.
In January 2012, Simpson "repeatedly" requested but did not receive a meeting to discuss the end of her performance improvement plan with a supervisor, the suit states.
Later that month, Simpson was diagnosed with restrictive lung disease, was sent to Urgent Care for treatment, the suit states, and informed her employer that she would be out for two days but her employer did not respond.
Days later, she met with the human resources director, complaining she was being retaliated against for taking FMLA leave, and was terminated.
Simpson's suit accuses the university on three points. First, she states the university interfered with her right to use FMLA and was terminated in retaliation for attempting to use FMLA for her medical condition.
"You're entitled to FMLA for serious health conditions. They retaliated against her for taking FMLA," Schaefer said.
Second, the suit accuses the university of invasion of privacy after it disclosed facts about Simpson "that were private in nature" to the public "and were not of a legitimate concern to the public."
Third, the suit accuses the university of violating a state law against "unlawful prohibition of legal activities," for being terminated for "lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours."
"It's a form of discrimination pursuant to Colorado law," Schaefer said about the university's alleged inquiries and actions about his client's relationship with her boyfriend.