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Former USF St. Pete regional chancellor claims defamation, breach of contract in lawsuit against Genshaft and USF

Margie Manning



University of South Florida St. Petersburg

More than a year and a half after Sophia Wisniewska stepped down as regional chancellor of University of South Florida St. Petersburg, she has sued the USF Board of Trustees and the university’s president, Judy Genshaft.

The lawsuit said USF and Genshaft breached a contract with Wisniewska, after releasing a draft of a defamatory termination letter to the Tampa Bay Times. That letter was released after Wisniewska signed a resignation agreement with USF that said both parties would refrain from professionally derogatory comments, according to the lawsuit.

Genshaft’s actions were “intentional and outrageous,” and Wisniewska suffered severe monetary damages and emotional distress as a result, the lawsuit said. Click on the link below to read the full complaint.

Sophia Wisniewska vs. USF and Judy Genshaft

Adam Freeman, spokesperson for USF told the St. Pete Catalyst in an email, “We strongly disagree with Dr. Wisniewska’s claims and we look forward to defending the decisions made around the time of her separation from USF.  The complaint is unexpected, as Dr. Wisniewska waived her right to future legal actions against the university in her resignation agreement.”

The lawsuit and the draft termination letter, which was filed as an exhibit to the lawsuit, paint very different pictures of the events that occurred as Hurricane Irma bore down on the Tampa Bay area in September 2017.

During the hurricane, Wisniewska, the plaintiff in the case, “competently fulfilled her role as the Regional Chancellor for USFSP. Even after Plaintiff evacuated the state, she retained her presence through phones and emails until the storm weakened,” the lawsuit said. “Due to Plaintiff’s competency and leadership during the storm, all students remained safe and USFSP suffered no damages.”

Genshaft’s draft termination letter accused Wisniewska of lacking leadership and creating a safety risk for students.

The letter said Wisniewska did not close and evacuate the USF St. Pete residence halls after she was given specific direction from Genshaft’s office to do so, and instead she waited for a written legal opinion saying she had the authority to take action. It also said Wisniewska evacuated the state without first notifying Genshaft or ensuring a clear chain of command was in place.

Wisniewska denied the assertions in the letter. She agreed to voluntarily resign as a compromise, instead of disputing the termination and continuing to be defamed by Genshaft, the lawsuit said.

But while negotiations concerning the resignation letter were taking place, Genshaft distributed, or caused to be distributed, the draft termination letter, asking the Tampa Bay Times not to publish it until the resignation agreement was signed, according to the lawsuit. After the agreement was signed, Genshaft directly or indirectly authorized the release of the letter by the Times, the lawsuit said.

That was a breach of the resignation agreement, the lawsuit said.

Wisniewska’s attorney, Charles Eiss, sent USF a letter in October 2018, notifying the school that Wisniewska intended to claim damages against USF and Genshaft and asking to begin discussions to resolve the matter before a complaint was filed.

The lawsuit, filed April 26 in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, asks for compensatory and punitive damages and other relief.

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