Jury awards millions to terminated TSC president

A federal jury has awarded former Texas Southmost College president Lily Tercero more than $13 million in damages for being fired during a sham termination hearing.

The verdict came late Thursday afternoon.

Tercero sued the college after it fired her in September 2016 for deliberately and recklessly failing to obtain windstorm insurance with board approval in compliance with state law; for allowing TSC checks to be stamped with signatures of people who were no longer trustees; for failing to timely search and fill the position of vice president for finance and administration; for failing to inform the board of the ailing nursing program and its pending suspension; for refusing a board member’s request that he personally sign and review checks in the amount of $10,000 or more and for not complying with a request for information sought by another member.

Tercero accused the school of pre-determining the outcome of her termination hearing, arguing she never had a fair shot during the public meeting.

The jury ruled that trustees did not have good cause to fire Tercero, that TSC breached her contract and that the trustees had already made up their minds to terminate the former president.

“They were trying to manufacture good cause where it didn’t exist,” Tercero’s attorney, Richard A. Illmer, said during closing arguments on Thursday.

The jury awarded Tercero $674,878.66 for lost earnings from her contract, which trustees voted to renew for three years in May 2016. After elections that same month, the trustees changed and a new majority fired her just months later.

The jury also awarded Tecero $12.5 million for diminished earning capacity and mental anguish.

In a prepared statement released Friday, TSC officials said, “TSC is looking at all legal options, including appeal. Our Board of Trustees are dedicated to our community and students, and that is their sole focus.”

During closing arguments, Illmer had only asked the jury to award Tercero the remainder of her contract and to determine what the jury felt was just compensation for diminished earning capacity and mental anguish.

The four-day trial featured testimony from numerous board members, past and present and included testimony from Tercero, who was the first witness to take the stand.

TSC’s former president, who sometimes softly cried during the beginning of her time on the witness stand, said she filed the lawsuit because she wanted to share her side of the story and because she felt the board’s accusations against her were unfounded and malicious.

“I just felt that it was very unfair,” Tercero said of a Sept. 19, 2016, public hearing where the Board of Trustees fired her after deliberating in closed session for 41 minutes.

That public hearing where the Board of Trustees voted to fire Terceo came just a little more than three months after TSC’s board approved a contract for Tercero in May 2016 that paid her an annual salary of $228,228 that would have expired on May 1, 2019.

According to that contract, TSC and Tercero agreed that she could be fired at any time with or without cause. However, if TSC fired Tercero without cause, the college would be required to pay her on a monthly basis for the remainder of her contract unless she accepted a lump sum.

“It was all a pretext. They were looking to fire her,” Tercero’s attorney, Illmer said, during opening arguments, telling the jury that the case was entirely about manufacturing cause to fire her so that they wouldn’t have to pay her.

Illmer said Tercero’s termination followed the creation of a new make-up to the board after May elections, creating a new majority on the board headed by Chair Adela Garza, who was the only trustee who voted against renewing Tercero’s contract in May 2016.

TSC’s attorney, Eduardo G. Garza, argued that the trustees had good cause to fire Tercero.