Nashville at Law: Conduct of famed Maya expert again at issue in VU lawsuit

Monday, January 26, 2009 at 1:00am

For the third time in 18 months, a legal dispute has broken out between anthropologist Brigitte Kovacevich and Vanderbilt University, where she carried out her graduate studies under renowned scholar Arthur Demarest.

Kovacevich filed suit last week against the university, claiming that Demarest, as its agent, has sabotaged her career in several ways because she resisted his sexual harassment. In her complaint, filed in Nashville’s federal court, Kovacevich accuses Demarest of badmouthing her to the publisher that was bringing out a book she wrote and telling a March 2008 academic conference in Canada that she had plagiarized from him.

Demarest has an international reputation as an expert on the Maya civilization that flourished and then mysteriously collapsed in Central America centuries before the first Spanish explorers arrived. Kovacevich argues that he has used his professional influence to harm her prospects of landing a tenure-track faculty appointment. She is presently a lecturer at the University of Virginia.

Kovacevich first sued Vanderbilt and Demarest in August 2007, making dramatic and detailed charges about Demarest's behavior at a dig site in the Guatemalan jungle. That lawsuit asserted that Demarest had “engaged in repeated unprofessional and outrageous conduct that included burning down the field camp, destruction of artifacts, fabrication of a crime scene, the misappropriation and misuse of Vanderbilt University and government funds, threats against students and assaults of students.”

The parties quickly entered talks to resolve the matter, and they agreed on a confidential settlement in January 2008. After the March 2008 conference, however, Kovacevich brought a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Vanderbilt, in turn, sued her for allegedly violating the settlement terms by going to the EEOC. In last week's lawsuit, she says a judge in that case denied Vanderbilt's request for an injunction against her.

Among other assertions, the current legal action accuses Demarest of "repeatedly communicating with the University Press of Colorado" to claim that Kovacevich was using drawings in her book without the permission of those who prepared them, a claim she denies.

“Demarest then proceeded to coerce the artist/creator of the images to withdraw permission of use of the images and to request an unreasonable amount of compensation for their one time use, while threatening legal action against plaintiff in Guatemala,” the complaint says.

The filing also says Demarest has tried to interfere with the publication by Vanderbilt University Press of a monograph based on Kovacevich's dissertation, as he has been "attacking the quality of the manuscript."

Kovacevich seeks $500,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. Richard J. Braun of Braun & Associates in Nashville is her attorney.

Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at Vanderbilt, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Davidson County Circuit Court

W. Stanford Blalock v. Preston Law Group P.C. and G. Kline Preston IV. Filed Jan. 20. Nashville plastic surgeon Blalock asks the court to stop attorney Preston from "abusively" pursuing legal action against him. Blalock asserts that he has paid in full on judgments that Preston won against him in 2005 while representing the owners of the Belle Meade Office Park in a lease dispute.

Preston has continued to try to collect further sums, including attorney's fees, since 2006. Blalock says the lawyer's efforts represent an "ongoing pattern of unlawful conduct constituting abuse of this court's process." Nashville attorney Robert L. DeLaney is representing Blalock.

Preston says the litigation against him is without merit. "I take it as a compliment," he adds. "This frivolous lawsuit has really energized me and my client. We are pleased with it."

John Doe v. David E. Swett Sr. Filed Jan. 20. An anonymous tipster sues Nashville restaurant owner Swett over his alleged failure to pay a $15,000 reward. Swett offered the reward for information leading to the conviction of the man who brutally attacked local business leader Francis Guess in 2007. An informant's tip led police to a suspect who eventually admitted the crime and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Swett's attorney, C. K. McLemore III of Nashville law firm McLemore & Rollins PLC, said last week that he understood the reward would be paid through Metro’s Crime Stoppers program. McLemore said his client is perfectly willing to make the payment upon request from Crime Stoppers.

But Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron told The City Paper that the tip in question “did not come through the Crime Stoppers program,” even though police had encouraged anyone with information to call Crime Stoppers as they announced the reward.

Madison attorneys Steve and Mark North are representing the anonymous informant. Judge Randy Kennedy granted the plaintiff's request to file suit as John Doe, accepting his argument that he might be harmed if his identity became known.

United States District Court

Brian Haley and Margaret Hudson v. Commercial Driver Institute Inc. et al. Notice of dismissal filed Jan. 15. The plaintiffs, former recruiters for a truck-driving school in Christiana who filed suit against its operators last month under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, promptly dropped their case two days after a defense motion termed their assertions of falsified student financial-aid forms and other corruption "simply nonsensical."

The dismissal "without prejudice" leaves Haley and Hudson free to re-file a lawsuit later.

Murfreesboro attorney Jerry E. Farmer represented Haley and Hudson. Thor Urness, Jonathan Rose and Emily Walsh of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Nashville served as defense counsel.

United States Bankruptcy Court

Gooch's Power Sports Inc. Chapter 11 petition filed Jan. 20. Used motorcycle and all-terrain-vehicle dealer Gooch's says it suffered a $135,000 loss in 2008 when its parts manager made a $150,000 special order for inventory that could only be sold for 10 percent of its cost. The filing claims the same manager stole an unknown amount of money out of the cash register last year, and it says a service department worker, also unnamed, pilfered $17,000 in 2007.

The company lists about $379,000 in total assets and $1.05 million in liabilities. Steve Lefkovitz of Nashville is its attorney.

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