Former executive director files lawsuit against YouZeum

Thursday, November 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 3:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 10, 2010

COLUMBIA — Gwen Robbins, former executive director of the YouZeum, has filed a lawsuit against her one-time employer.

The lawsuit cites defamation and negligence on the part of both The YouZeum Inc. and Glenn McElroy, who at the time of Robbins' resignation was chairman of the YouZeum board of directors.

The petition on file at the Boone County Courthouse indicated that a termination agreement was reached at the time of Robbins' resignation. It was agreed upon by both Robbins and her employer. The agreement stipulated that neither Robbins nor the YouZeum would make any comment to the press regarding the circumstances of Robbins' separation from the YouZeum beyond that they had "met and agreed that in these difficult economic times a change in direction was needed."

In November 2008, about a week after Robbins' resignation, the Columbia Tribune reported that Robbins had stepped down and it printed comments, attributed to McElroy, that Robbins had struggled to bring in major donors, that giving to the museum had "dried up" in the past year and that the YouZeum board of directors had "decided it was appropriate to make a change."

Furthermore, the Tribune reported that Robbins was forced to step down from her position.

"The statements made by Mr. McElroy have damaged Ms. Robbins' professional reputation, and it's our opinion that they're untrue, so that fits the category for defamation," said Michael Byrne, Robbins' attorney.

Robbins brought 15 years' experience as a fundraising and development professional when she joined the YouZeum in July of 2006.

According to the legal petition, Robbins raised more than $1 million in grants and other contributions for the YouZeum and received a $10,000 raise following a positive performance evaluation in 2007. She now works as a volunteer at the Children's House Montessori School of Columbia, and Byrne said she has been seeking full-time employment since leaving the museum.

In the past six months, Byrne has argued two trial cases, and, in both, the plaintiffs he represented were awarded damages of more than $200,000.

"We feel we want to ask the jury for what would be a fair and reasonable award for Gwen," Byrne said. "If this case has to go to trial, we would be trusting the jury to do what's right."

In addition to the stipulations restricting either side from discussing the matter with the press, the agreement also promised to reimburse Robbins approximately $6,000 in unpaid vacation time. Robbins has not received this compensation, according to the court filing.

Byrne said that Robbins was not initially inclined to sue, and a letter was sent to the YouZeum directors requesting a private settlement. There was no response, he said. Because Byrne and Robbins both felt that YouZeum and McElroy were in breach of contract in talking to the press and thus negating the termination agreement, they saw no other option but to pursue legal remedy.

Glenn McElroy and the current chairman of YouZeum's board of directors, Michael Szewczyk, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"If the YouZeum had been willing to offer an apology or retract the statements, we would not have filed a suit," Byrne said.

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