Former USF St. Petersburg leader sues university and president Judy Genshaft

The lawsuit alleges USF leaked defamatory information about ex-chancellor Sophia
Wisniewska after forcing her to resign.
Sophia Wisniewska, pictured here in 2013, was regional chancellor of the school until 2017, when she was forced to resign after a controversy over her handling of campus preparations for Hurricane Irma. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Sophia Wisniewska, pictured here in 2013, was regional chancellor of the school until 2017, when she was forced to resign after a controversy over her handling of campus preparations for Hurricane Irma. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published April 30
Updated May 1

The ex-leader of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg has sued the USF system and its president Judy Genshaft over a forced resignation nearly two years ago.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, alleges that Genshaft breached a contract with Sophia Wisniewska by releasing defamatory information about her to the Tampa Bay Times in September 2017.

It claims Wisniewska, 67, has suffered emotional and monetary distress since being forced out as chancellor, a position she held for four years but lost after a disagreement about how she handled preparations for Hurricane Irma.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: USF St. Petersburg leader forced out for botching Irma evacuation

While she sent emails suggesting that she had stayed on campus for the storm, Wisniewska actually was in Atlanta, where she went to seek shelter as the hurricane approached, according to public records.

Genshaft had planned to fire Wisniewska at the time, citing “lack of leadership.” But the chancellor negotiated a resignation agreement instead.

In the midst of those conversations, the lawsuit alleges, Genshaft “willfully and maliciously distributed” to the Times a draft of a termination letter that was never sent to the chancellor.

The Times published a story citing the letter on Sept. 19. “Your conduct created an intolerable safety risk to our students and the USFSP community,” Genshaft wrote to Wisniewska.

The story also quoted Wisniewska, who responded with a text that said in part: “I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma and my leadership during my tenure at USFSP. Certainly, I did nothing to warrant firing for cause."

Releasing the termination letter violated a non-disparagement clause directed at Genshaft in the resignation agreement, the lawsuit states. The action “did not comport with (Wisniewska’s) reasonable expectations that the draft termination letter would stay away from the public.”

In a statement Tuesday, USF spokesman Adam Freeman said university leaders “strongly disagree” with Wisniewska’s claims. He pointed out that the ex-chancellor waived her right to future legal actions against USF in the resignation agreement she signed.

“We look forward to defending the decisions made around the time of her separation from USF,” Freeman said, adding that the university will make no further comments on the pending litigation.

The agreement he mentioned, which is included in the lawsuit, also contains a clause about Chapter 119 of Florida Statutes, which is the state’s public records law. It says the document, "along with other records related to Dr. Wisniewska’s employment at USF may be subject … to disclosure as a public record.” It adds: "USF’s production of records pursuant to Chapter 119 shall not be deemed a violation of any of the terms of this Agreement.”

Wisniewska’s lawsuit calls Genshaft’s actions “intentional and outrageous.” It says Wisniewska has suffered monetary damages because “her employability and professional standing were destroyed.”

It argues, too, that Wisniewska “competently fulfilled” her role preparing USF St. Petersburg for the storm.

“Even after (Wisniewska) evacuated the state, she retained her presence through phones and emails until the storm weakened,” the lawsuit states. “Due to (her) competency and leadership during the storm, all students remained safe and USFSP suffered no damages.”

The suit asks for more than $15,000 in damages in addition to court costs.

Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.

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