Texas Tech former data manager sues, saying he was fired in retaliation for discovering mistake; university says firing valid, wants case tossed

Nicolas Valcik

Image of Nicolas Valcik from United States Ju-Jitsu Federation website (Valcik is listed as a member of the federation.)

A few months ago, Dr. Nicolas Valcik sued Texas Tech University, claiming his discovery of an embarrassing mistake led to his 2022 firing. The university responded last week, saying Valcik, its former managing director of institutional research, is the one trying to cover something up. Tech asked a judge to throw the case out.

Valcik’s lawsuit claimed the university violated the False Claims Act, which provides whistleblower protection for his discovery that staffing reports contained errors needing to be reported to state and federal officials.

“Dr. Valcik wanted to update the information … but he was told not to because the president was already using those numbers publicly,” the lawsuit said.

His attorney, Eric Roberson, said, “I believe Mr. Valcik was treated unfairly and illegally.

“I think the university needs to be run with integrity. We believe it has fallen short in this instance,” Roberson told LubbockLights.com.

But the university sees it quite differently – saying in court records Valcik’s boss “discovered discrepancies” in the month before he was fired.

Tech’s response in court records said, “This was not the first time concerns were raised over Valcik’s reporting of inaccurate data. Moreover, as opposed to acknowledging his mistakes and correcting his errors, it was revealed that Valcik had a history of attempting to improperly cover up his mistakes … ”

Tech also brought up its legal protection under sovereign immunity. In simple terms, the school told a federal judge Valcik has no right to file a lawsuit. We’ll get to the legal arguments in just a bit.

The timeline
Sept. 1, 2020: Valcik hired by Texas Tech, managing director of institutional research
March 2022: Valcik’s boss had concerns
April 11, 2022: Valcik was terminated
April 2024: Valcik sued Texas Tech
June 2024: Tech filed a response in court

Valcik claims fraud

“Valcik had discovered that the faculty data… had errors … which had to be reported for state … and federal funding,” the lawsuit said.

It claimed errors must be corrected. Sending false data for government funding is illegal. Valcik claimed in his lawsuit that – once discovered – not reporting the errors to the state and federal governments rose to the level of fraud.

“Texas Tech’s administrators preferred to defraud the government moving forward than to admit to the president or the public that the university’s data needed updating,” the lawsuit said.

Tech absolutely denied wrongdoing and made its own claim – saying Valcik instructed one of his employees to “alter existing reports to match his erroneous data.”

LubbockLights.com offered Texas Tech a chance to comment above and beyond the legal briefs in federal court. The university declined saying it would not comment on a pending lawsuit.

False Claims Act

The lawsuit specifically mentioned Title IV – student loan funding. The U.S. Department of Education’s website said schools must be approved to participate in financial aid programs.

Roberson said, “There are a variety of items that when you apply for federal grants that you certify are accurate. The basis of the False Claims Act is it has to be correct.”

The lawsuit said, “Valcik’s attempts were designed to prevent a fraudulent federal grant filing, and thus were ‘protected activity’ under the Federal False Claims Act.”

The lawsuit said even if Valcik was mistaken, he still gets whistleblower protection.

The law Valcik used goes all the way back to the American Civil War to stop fraud by military contractors. It was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on March 2, 1863.

That same law was brought to bear against the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center more than 25 years ago. A federal appeals court threw it out saying the school had sovereign immunity. Tech reminded the judge of that very same case.

Immunity, that’s the fight

Valcik’s lawsuit said he’s relying on another provision of the same law which also prohibits retaliation and wrongful termination. The provision at issue in the late 1990s was different. It allows private citizens to sue for the return of federal dollars.

Tech waived sovereign immunity because it “accepted federal funds for educational purposes,” the lawsuit said.

What is sovereign immunity?

The government cannot be sued without its consent. Sovereign immunity was based on the idea the king could do no wrong. In the United States, sovereign immunity applies to the federal government and state government. Source: Cornell Law School.

There are exceptions, which Lubbock Lights covered here.

“That’s what we’re going to be fighting over. The general rule is when you take money from the federal government, you waive sovereign immunity. I have to say sovereign immunity is a mine field. The map of that mine field seems to be changing on a near daily basis,” Roberson said.

Good person or unreliable?

“I believe Dr. Valcik is a good person who was doing an honest job and was not treated properly,” Roberson said.

Tech said Valcik lost his job because of a loss of trust and confidence, not retaliation.

Tech’s legal brief said, “Senior leadership expressed concerns over continuing to work with Valcik, stating they had no confidence in his ability to report accurately nor represent their interactions in an honest manner.”

“Because Valcik could no longer effectively perform the duties of his job, he was terminated.”

Roberson said, “He found another job in Texas as an administrator doing essentially the same task but for another institution.”

On online search did not reveal his new job.

What’s next?

The case remains on hold until a federal judge rules on Tech’s request to toss the case.

Valcik also filed an age discrimination case against Tech with the Texas Workforce Commission, Roberson said, adding Valcik is not trying to get any federal grant money removed from Texas Tech. He wants lost wages and legal damages.

Correction: In our weekly Saturday newsletter, information about this story had an incorrect date to when Abraham Lincoln signed legislation. The correct date is 1863.

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Author: James Clark- James Clark is the associate editor of Lubbock Lights. He worked in radio, television and digital media for a combined total of more than 30 years. He was Director of Digital News Content at KAMC, KLBK and EverythingLubbock.com for nearly 10 years.