A federal court judge has ruled in favor of a former Emporia State University employee who lost her job in 2015 after she complained about being the target of a racial slur.

The ruling left Angelica hale speechless and relieved, the culmination of a four-year fight to clear her name.

“I don’t have words, but I am smiling harder than I have in ages," Hale said. "I’m ecstatic."

Hale and her husband, Melvin, represented themselves in separate lawsuits alleging the university retaliated when the black couple accused officials of failing to investigate the slur. A jury rejected Melvin Hale's case on Monday.

A day later, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree ruled Angelica Hale was improperly punished for engaging in protected activity under federal anti-discrimination law. He ordered the university to pay $1 in nominal damages, as well as lost wages and court costs to be determined.

For the Hales, who now live in California, prevailing in court against the Kansas Attorney General's office and the university's general counsel is "a historic moment," Angelica Hale said. The two have been without a job or house, sometimes sleeping in their car, since leaving ESU.

They believe university officials didn't take seriously the discovery of the word "niggaz" written in a notebook in Angelica Hale's office in 2015. At the time, she was working as an administrative assistant to Gwen Alexander, the dean of the School of Library Information and Management, where Melvin Hale was a tenure-track professor.

Alexander planned to hire Angelica Hale as the marketing coordinator for SLIM before the couple took their complaints to top-level university administrators. The dean retaliated, Crabtree said in his ruling, by rescinding the job offer and eliminating Angelica Hale's temporary position.

Crabtree, quoting from caselaw, said it is "difficult to imagine a message more calculated to make an African–American feel unwelcome in the workplace than 'nigger' engraved in his or her individual workspace."

The university's actions "would dissuade an employee from making a charge of discrimination," the judge said.

Gwen Larson, spokeswoman for ESU, said the university is still studying the decision with counsel, "and we haven't gotten into the nuances of it yet."

ESU has policies and procedures in place for employees to bring concerns, she said, and the university is committed to providing a welcoming environment.

“I really can’t speak to what people would feel or believe because that’s very subjective to their own situation," Larson said, "but I personally as an employee am very comfortable with the procedures and know how to use them if I have a concern. And no, I don’t fear retaliation."

Larson said the university's diversity, equity and inclusion task force examines the campus environment and produces reports. The university has incorporated the task force’s goals into its strategic plan, she said.

The Hales, whose outcry inspired a civil rights march in Emporia in 2015, said they have applied for 250 jobs since leaving the university, but the discrimination claims scare employers away.

Part of the problem, the couple said, is the university's public explanation following an internal investigation. The university said the epithet was found in a notebook left in a commons area, and that it was a fluke the Hales found out about it. In reality, the notebook was discovered by Angelica Hale's graduate assistant in a locked office in a semi-restricted area.

“We have put up with suffering and hardship because we were not going to allow them to do what they did to us and drag our name through the mud and destroy our reputation just because they could," Melvin Hale said.

The couple said they both sought a bench trial, in which the judge hears facts and makes a decision, but the A.G.'s office asked for a jury to settle the husband's case. The university said Melvin Hale was dismissed for failing to complete a portfolio, which the professor disputes.

A jury with one black member and seven white members, including a current ESU student, sided with the university in Melvin Hale's case, which was before a different federal judge.

Melvin Hale faces an ongoing defamation lawsuit filed by an ESU employee he accused of writing the offensive word.