A federal judge's ruling will allow key parts of a high-profile lawsuit filed against the University of Rochester by a group of former students and faculty to move forward.
The group, all of whom were from the UR's Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, allege that university officials mishandled complaints about conduct by Florian Jaeger, a professor in the department. And they say that the officials retaliated against those who made the complaints, hurting their reputation and employment prospects. They filed the lawsuit in December 2017, and the case received national attention as the #MeToo movement grew.
The university commissioned an investigation into officials' handling of the complaints, and a report issued in January 2018 criticized Jaeger for unprofessional behavior and poor judgment. The report cleared him of violating school policy, and the university tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, but US District Court Judge Lawrence Vilardo issued a ruling last Thursday denying that request.
Vilardo did dismiss several of the lawsuit's claims against the university, including one of retaliation by university officials against a plaintiff after the plaintiff was no longer employed there. But his ruling allows much of the case to move forward, including claims that:
• Actions by Jaeger and others created a hostile work environment;
• The university violated some plaintiffs' confidentiality during its investigation into complaints about Jaeger;
• University officials engaged in retaliation by searching some plaintiffs' emails; allowing Jaeger to participate in performance evaluations of two plaintiffs; and initiating an independent investigation into complaints against Jaeger, even though UR officials knew some of the plaintiffs couldn't participate because of their suit against the university;
• Then-UR President Joel Seligman and Provost Robert Clark "aided and abetted" discrimination and retaliation against the plaintiffs.
The university argued that none of its actions cited by the plaintiffs amounted to "adverse employment actions." But, Vilardo said, citing earlier court rulings: "The core question is whether, in the context of the plaintiffs' circumstances," the university's actions "might well have 'dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.'"
"And if criticism damages the plaintiffs' reputations and employment prospects – as it plausibly could for academics in a focused niche of scientific research – that criticism indeed might well deter a reasonable employee from engaging in protected activity and thus constitute adverse employment action," Vilardo said. "The criticism here meets that standard," he said, "at least at the pleading stage."
In addition, he said, "the alleged incidents are not isolated or one-off insults. On the contrary, the plaintiffs allege a pattern of them at the university. And if some of the actions alone might not be sufficient, in combination they plausibly amount to material adverse employment action."
Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Celeste Kidd and Jessica Cantlon, told WXXI last week that they're pleased that Vilardo is letting the suit move forward. "It's not OK to treat women this way," Cantlon said. "It's not ok to treat employee whistleblowers in this way, and so having this part of the public record, an official record is something that is really important to us."
Both women have left the UR. Kidd is now on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, Cantlon at Carnegie Mellon.
The UR said in a statement that it is pleased that Vilardo dismissed several of the claims in the civil case, and that it is confident the university will prevail on the merits of the remaining claims. The university statement also says it has reviewed and strengthened many of its sexual misconduct policies and practices and will continue to do that.
Randy Gorbman is WXXI news director.