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In racial discrimination case against UNCW, plaintiff says new documents support his case

Longtime painting contractor Robert Dorsey is suing UNCW, alleging racial discrimination and breach of contract.
New Hanover County Superior Court
Longtime painting contractor Robert Dorsey is suing UNCW, alleging racial discrimination and breach of contract.

Robert Dorsey is a painting contractor in New Hanover County. Last year, Dorsey filed a lawsuit against UNCW on the basis of racial discrimination — now, newly uncovered documents help show why he thinks he has a good case.

Robert Dorsey has been a contractor for years. Early on, he contracted for New Hanover County Schools, then started his own contracting business, and went on to contract for UNCW for years. He prides himself on doing good work.

“My father told me that years ago. Son, if you do a job, you do a perfect job. You do a good job, and you will never have to worry about work," Dorsey said.

A good contractor does the most work for the cheapest price. Contractors get hired by bidding on projects or pitching how much they’ll be able to do for a sum price. For example, for painting work, their bid sheets indicate the cost for each room and show the total amount the contractor would be paid for the job. The contractor with the lowest bid gets chosen to do the work. Once the contractor carries out the project, they get paid.

Dorsey said public documents with details on the bidding and contracting process during the summer of 2017 at UNCW support his case that he was unfairly discriminated against after years of professional service — sadly, according to Dorsey, it's not the first time.

New Hanover County School issues

Dorsey started contracting for New Hanover County Schools in 1986. In 1997, a competing contractor, Nicholas Saffo, presented the lowest bid to paint at College Park Elementary, Virgo Middle, and New Hanover High school. Saffo’s bid sheets showed that he could do the work for more than twelve thousand dollars cheaper than Dorsey and was awarded the contract.

Long after Saffo was awarded the bids, Dorsey said he noticed that several classrooms hadn’t been painted—rooms Saffo had been paid to paint.

“That's when the red flag went up. And I knew something wasn't right. So I started my investigation and found out that there were classrooms, cafeteria, a lot of things that were not already painted. But yet the contract was far gone. So I went to another school, part of the contract, and the auditorium wasn't painted… So I say that what I need to do now is go to accounts payable to see if the contractor actually got all the money, because I knew all the work was not done. And lo and behold, when I went, I got a copy of his payments, that they paid him and equal the full amount of the contract," Dorsey said.

Saffo still got paid his full bid price even though, according to Dorsey, his work was incomplete. In 2001, Dorsey filed a lawsuit against the school system accusing them of fraud, racketeering, and deceptive business practices, among other things. The lawsuit alleges Saffo’s incomplete work and claims Saffo’s bid was low because it didn’t include the cost of labor and materials like Dorsey’s did. Dorsey also believed Saffo had an in with the school system, guaranteeing him contracts before other contractors made their bids.

The lawsuit was dismissed in 2002. That's apparently in large part because Terry Zick, Dorsey’s lawyer failed repeatedly to properly represent him. She also failed other clients, for which the North Carolina State Bar censured her and suspended her license.

That meant Dorsey never found redemption for the New Hanover County Schools case.

Starting over at UNCW

After leaving New Hanover County Schools, Dorsey started his own contracting company in 1995 and started bidding on contracts at UNCW in 2001. During the summer when dorms are mostly empty, contractors come in to paint and make repairs.

“Well, you go in and you bid on contracts. UNCW will send out a bid package, and mostly per bedroom, per living room, per bathroom, and you give them the price per. And, of course, there would be a total amount that you'd have to turn in, and then the project manager would read off that in the bid meeting, before whomever wants to be there as public. Normally, we've been about three weeks before the kids get out around May 8th. So normally April 15th is when the bids are read," Dorsey said.

Dorsey contracted for the college for fifteen years, but in the summer of 2017, Dorsey was outbid by Chris Abeles. In addition, Dorsey said the contract he did win ended up being worth less than it was supposed to.

“In 2017 I bid on five painting contracts. It was contract one, contract two, contract three, contract four, contract five. I was the lowest on two of the five," meaning Dorsey offered to do the work for the lowest price on two of the contracts.

“And Chris Abeles was the lowest on two of the five. And then the fifth contract, contract five, we came up with the same exact price $10,900. So three weeks later, fast forward, and I'm ready to go to work. I have a $31,000—31,000 some odd dollar contract. But when they gave me my worksheet, it was only $1500 worth of work. Two weeks after that, I started my second contract which was $7200. And then they only gave me $1200 worth of work," Dorsey said.

Dorsey was prepared to do the larger project for a larger price. He already had equipment and workers for the job. So Dorsey ended up making less money than he anticipated on the bids he won. UNCW also gave the tied bid to Chris Abeles claiming he had more staff than Dorsey.

Bad math?

When it was time for Abeles to do the project, he had assistance from UNCW students. Dorsey was never provided student assistance from the school and always paid his own workers. The students were being paid by the school to paint rooms, but Abeles had already been paid to paint some of them. Abeles was paid for the work the students were doing, according to documents provided by Dorsey.

Below: Dorsey demonstrated overlap between student work and contracted work— for example, on documents for Seahawk Landing room 105B in SL2 shows up both on Abeles contracted list and as student work.

Documents provided by Robert Dorsey. Left: A list of rooms to be painted, part of the Seahawk Landing contract won by Chris Abeles. Right: A list of student work in the same building. Dorsey noted the overlap on room 105A, for example.
Robert Dorsey
Documents provided by Robert Dorsey. Left: A list of rooms to be painted, part of the Seahawk Landing contract won by Chris Abeles. Right: A list of student work in the same building. Dorsey noted the overlap on room 105A, for example.

And despite the extra help from the students, Abeles seemed to leave work incomplete, according to Dorsey.

“When I pulled the list of his rooms and also asked for a list of what the students did the same summer of 2017, in the same building, the students were in his rooms painting what he was supposed to be painting. And I found in several rooms, maybe eight rooms or so, that I found which he didn't finish all of them… There were also rooms where the students were in there painting his rooms, but the contract clearly states what he's supposed to paint in each common room, or living area, each bedroom, and each bathroom — it's very specific."

During the same summer, Dorsey had a contract for vent cleaning. The contract was supposed to last for three years, but when Peter Groenendyk became the new director of housing and residential life, Dorsey’s contract ended six months early. (Dorsey protested, and was eventually able to get the remainder of his contract restored—but didn’t get vent cleaning work after that.)

The college’s recent decisions seemed strange. It reminded Dorsey of what he experienced with New Hanover Public Schools. He wanted to know what was on the bid sheets Abeles turned in.

“It’s important because those bids have to be there as part of the record, which is by law, have to be kept. If there is no bid sheet, and there is no record, there's no clear record of what's going on. And each one of us being you know, public, we have a right to know about that," Dorsey said.

Despite bid sheets being public information, it took Dorsey some time ____ to get them from UNCW. Eventually, Dorsey got copies of the sheets. The math on the bid sheets Abeles turned in was incorrect. After bids are read, Dorsey said it’s the project manager’s job to check the math on each bid sheet. (When asked to confirm who would be responsible for checking the accuracy of bids as a general practice, UNCW said only “The university cannot provide further comment due to pending litigation.”)

What is clear is that, to determine the bid price, you look at the cost per room, multiply that by the number of rooms, and you get the total bid price.

UNCW only provided one of the five bids that Abeles entered. The University hasn’t confirmed where the other pages are, but on that one sheet—the numbers don’t match.

From Chris Abeles' bid sheet, the highlighted bid is off by $750 (highlight added for emphasis).
Chris Abeles
From Chris Abeles' bid sheet, the highlighted bid is off by $750 (highlight added for emphasis).

On the bid sheet, the room cost times the number of rooms should have been hundreds of dollars lower—$750, to be exact— than his total bid for that contract. Essentially, Abeles was inflating the prices of his work, and the project manager—or someone else —overlooked it, or approved it anyway. Dorsey said he believed Abeles inflated his other bids as well, allowing him to win those contracts as well.

The questions remained

The questions remained for Dorsey: Why did a less experienced contractor win contracts over someone who has worked with a perfect fifteen year record? Why did Dorsey’s three-year vent cleaning contract end early? And why were the mistakes on the bid sheets Abeles turned in overlooked? According to Robert Dorsey, the decisions were racially motivated. Robert Dorsey is Black, and Chris Abeles is white.

“For fifteen years, you know, I worked out there —- the Vice Chancellor said, ‘you were perfect for fifteen years Mr. Dorsey. Always did what you say you're going to do.’ But when they hired new management, he came in, and all of a sudden, everything change. I was the lowest on two bids, as I stated before, but yet you only give me pennies of it. And the tie bid you give to a new man. So I haven't done anything against you. So it can't be nothing but racially motivated," Dorsey said.

The incident with UNCW has left Dorsey financially and emotionally stressed. Dorsey has since filed a lawsuit against the college, claiming that their bidding process shows racial discrimination and violates his constitutional rights. UNCW has declined to discuss pending litigation.

“I've been hurt, and I really want an apology for how they treated me. I would like to be compensated for the money that I've missed. Because I do feel that all five of those contracts I would have gotten if they were not plotting or cheating… and it just, it really hurts, you know, hurts deeply. That although I've put in and you know, a perfect record, because I care about what I do and I want my work to be done right ... it's a problem because now I do have to worry about work because of discrimination," Dorsey said.

Mattie Holloway is a North Carolina native from Emerald Isle. She is a rising junior at Emerson College majoring in writing, literature, and publishing. Mattie has interned for Public Radio East; she is part of Emerson’s honors program; and writes for her school’s lifestyle magazine, Atlas. When she’s not working, Mattie enjoys going to the beach, trying to find the perfect cup of coffee, and receiving book recommendations.