By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.
A jury will decide if Yale University is vicariously liable for tangible actions taken by a married professor in its School of Medicine, who purportedly convinced a reluctant post-doctoral fellow to continue their two-year sexual affair by threatening her continued employment, and then forced her out after his wife found out about their romance, leading to a downgrade in her promising academic career. Denying the university’s motion for summary judgment on her Title VII sexual harassment claims, a federal court in Connecticut determined that triable issues existed as to whether the relationship was “consensual,” whether his actions constituted a continuing violation, and whether the university was entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense (Uyar v. Seli, March 31, 2018, Bryant, V.).
Professor oversaw employee’s fellowship. The employee, a Turkish national, conducted research in a laboratory run by the professor within Yale’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. Her post-doctoral fellowship research was funded by grant money obtained by the professor and he could at any time decide to discontinue funding her position. She also depended on his recommendations to obtain other positions or to publish in academic journals.
Reluctant romance. Though the employee initially rejected the professor’s romantic overtures, she eventually relented. However, she claimed that she repeatedly tried to break off the affair, but felt coerced into continuing it by threats of losing her fellowship if their relationship ended. Text messages between the two also indicated his unwillingness to end the affair and his displeasure when she did not answer his calls.
Jealous wife. After about two years, on May 31, 2014, the professor’s wife learned of their relationship. He quickly ended the romance and tried to end the employee’s relationship with the university to appease his wife. For instance, the very next day, he sent an email to the department’s business manager claiming her research “did not look promising for next year and I think we may not renew her appointment.” He also cancelled her research project and her flight to and registration at a professional conference that she was scheduled to attend.
He also specifically asked her to leave Yale and threatened to tell her family about their relationship and humiliate her if she chose to stay. After a dispute as to whether he was going to issue her a reappointment letter to ensure that her visa didn’t expire, she told him that if he didn’t divorce his wife and leave Yale, she would file a complaint. After he refused, she reported their affair and his threats to the department chair, who returned her to work and assured her she would not be punished. She also met with the Title IX coordinator, who told her about the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC) complaint process. Nevertheless, the professor continued to be hostile and threatening.
To preserve her professional reputation, she reluctantly terminated her fellowship and accepted a position with a research institution. She also filed a complaint with the UWC, and during the subsequent investigation, indicated that her relationship with the professor had been consensual. The UWC ultimately determined that he violated the teacher-student fraternalization policy and recommended several disciplinary actions short of termination.
Debatable whether affair “consensual.” The court squarely rejected Yale’s assertion that the employee’s claim of sexual harassment could not survive because her relationship with the professor was consensual. Significantly, an employee’s failed romance with a supervisor can lead to an actionable Title VII claim when subsequent mistreatment can be tied to the rejected supervisor’s unwanted sexual advances or other inappropriate efforts to resume the relationship. Here, while the professor undisputedly stopped his sexual overtures to the employee following his wife’s discovery of the affair, the employee claimed she had remained in the relationship out of fear that she would have to leave Yale if she broke it off.
The key question was thus whether the professor’s actions following his wife’s discovery of the affair constituted “unfair and certainly unchivalrous behavior” following the dissolution of a voluntary sexual relationship or “the execution of threats that kept the employee from leaving the relationship sooner.” In arguing that the relationship was fully consensual, Yale cited to the UWC investigation report indicating the employee had maintained that the relationship was voluntary. However, she claimed she had meant that he never used physical force or intimidation and consistently testified that she believed her job would be in jeopardy if she ended the relationship. The court found that a jury should decide whether to credit the report or the employee’s testimony, noting that UWC was controlled by Yale and that numerous electronic communications between the two suggested that he resisted her efforts to end the relationship.
The court further reasoned that Title VII was not designed to shield employers from liability when an employee’s understanding of the word “consensual” or her understanding of anti-bias law or American values relating to workplace conduct are “colored by the norms of less progressive societies.” To find otherwise would be to “immunize employers from liability for fostering hostile work environments among immigrants from cultures that do not value a woman’s right to be free from discrimination in the workplace.”
Continuing violation. The court also rejected the university’s assertion that the employee’s claims regarding the professor’s behavior before June 4, 2014, were time-barred because they fell outside the 300-day statutory period. Because a reasonable jury could conclude that his attempts to remove her from her position within the applicable limitations period represented his execution of prior threats he made during their relationship, his conduct could be found to constitute a continuing violation.
Faragher/Ellerth defense. Finally, the university failed to establish that it was entitled to the Faragher/Ellerth affirmative defense since the record suggested that the professor took a tangible action against her by denying her access to her existing research projects, telling her not to come to his lab, and coercing her into remaining in the sexual relationship in order to maintain her position at the university. Moreover, a jury could find that her initial decision not to avail herself of Yale’s anti-discrimination apparatus was reasonable based on her testimony that he threatened her continued employment if she revealed the existence of their relationship.
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