College students often are unhappy with their grades or upset with professors.
But in Carlos Bayon's case, something extraordinary happened: He sued the University at Buffalo and walked out of federal court with a $601,000 verdict.
A jury recently awarded the money to Bayon, 49, of Lewiston, after he claimed that unfair treatment from faculty members prevented him from earning a doctorate at the UB Department of Anthropology.
State officials said it is believed to be the largest such verdict awarded to a former student of New York's university system. Bayon's legal fight, so far, has taken more than six years.
"I cried when I heard the verdict. I felt like 10,000 pounds were lifted off my shoulders," Bayon said in an interview. "I've always felt that if a jury of unbiased people ever got to hear my story, they would believe me. And these people did."
In his lawsuit, Bayon accused members of the UB anthropology faculty of giving him low grades in 1997 to retaliate against him for filing a number of discrimination complaints against them. A native of Puerto Rico who walks slowly with a cane, Bayon said those low grades -- a D and a C in two key courses -- caused him to lose his financial assistance and forced him to leave graduate school at UB.
Ultimately, Judge John T. Elfvin dismissed the discrimination complaints based on race, nationality and disability, but he allowed Bayon's retaliation complaint to go to trial. The verdict was awarded in Elfvin's court May 5.
"The jury's award was for retaliation, not discrimination," said Bayon's court-appointed Buffalo attorney, Robert G. Scumaci. "When Carlos filed his discrimination complaint, his right to file a complaint was protected by federal law. The law protects him from retaliation."
A state attorney, Ann C. Williams, has asked Elfvin to overturn the verdict. In court papers, Williams said the only reason for Bayon's problems at UB was his own "poor academic performance."
Any adverse actions taken against Bayon at UB were for "legitimate academic reasons," Williams argued.
A spokesman for UB and the State Attorney General's office declined to discuss the case.
In court papers and trial testimony, though, UB officials vehemently denied any discrimination against Bayon. They also denied that anyone at the university retaliated against him for filing a complaint.
Lewis E. Rosenthal, an associate counsel for the state university system, said he believes it is the largest such verdict ever awarded to a former student in the history of the system.
Bayon said he is in "constant pain" and sometimes is unable to walk because of injuries to his knee, back and neck, suffered during a violent robbery and assault in Miami in 1991.
He is unemployed and collecting state disability payments. He has an undergraduate degree in sociology from UB and still hopes to get his Ph.D. in anthropology.
"My grandfather, mother and sister all were teachers. I'd like to teach, possibly back in Puerto Rico," he said. "Anthropology (has) so many variations, all covering interactions with people. It looks at how and why people live the way they do. It fascinates me."
His original lawsuit, filed in 1998, accused UB faculty of discriminating against him on the basis of race, nationality and disability. He said professors repeatedly refused to give him special accommodations to complete tests or papers, even though he was registered as a disabled student with UB's office of disability services.
The 1998 lawsuit accused one professor of saying he wanted an "elite group" of anthropology graduate students with an "excellent command of English." Bayon also charged that the Anthropology Department's qualifying exam is "a tool of racist discrimination and biased against minority students."
Bayon said he filed a civil rights complaint against UB in June 1997. After that, he said, professors began giving him a hard time and bad grades. He said a professor told him he would never get his Ph.D. unless he dropped his discrimination suit.
Legal arguments on the state's effort to have the verdict overturned are expected to be heard by Elfvin in late June.
Bayon said he is especially thankful to Scumaci, who assisted him without pay since 2001. Scumaci may eventually receive some hourly compensation, court officials said, but nowhere near the $200,000 he would have received from Bayon under a normal attorney-client contingency agreement.
Bayon said he hopes the verdict stands, and if it does, he will use part of the $601,000 to continue his education. He said he would still like to earn his doctorate, and wouldn't rule out returning to UB to do it.
"I would not discard that possibility," Bayon said. "UB is one of the finest schools in the area."