A federal jury has awarded a female professor lost earnings and punitive damages on two counts of employment retaliation, despite rejecting her claim of sex discrimination in a university’s distribution of coveted teaching assignments. Baugh v. Robert Morris University, No. 2016-cv-430 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 11, 2018).
Jeanne Baugh, a computer programming professor at Robert Morris University (RMU), filed a lawsuit against RMU in the Western District of Pennsylvania in 2016 alleging sex discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII, Title IX, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). According to the complaint, RMU retaliated against Baugh for filing a union grievance in 2013 when a Java class she had taught for nine years was taken away from her and assigned to a less qualified male professor.
Although Baugh settled her initial 2013 grievance with the school, she asserted that the Associate Dean called Baugh a liar at the grievance meeting and told her that her sex discrimination claim was “laughable” and he was “insulted by this,” despite admitting the process for assigning the course was “irregular.”
Baugh claimed that in the spring of 2014, the school again assigned the same Java class to the male professor. Baugh also claimed the school changed her teaching schedule from Tuesday/Thursday to Monday/Wednesday/Friday because of the grievance. The school argued that Baugh did not suffer an adverse employment action because she taught an advanced Java course, even if it was not at the graduate level, and that the school changed the schedules of all members of the department, not just Baugh’s.
On September 11, 2018, the jury rejected Baugh’s claim that the school awarded the spring 2014 graduate Java class to her male colleague because of her gender. However, the jury found for Baugh on her Title VII and PHRA retaliation claims, awarding her $2,627.49 in lost earnings and $10,000 in punitive damages, but declining to award damages for emotional distress.
This case provides yet another example of an employer exonerated on claims of sex discrimination, but unable to escape liability for retaliation due to a flawed response to the initial complaint. Employers should respond to a complaint of sex discrimination with a thorough and objective investigation and all subsequent employment actions impacting the complainant should be strictly job-related and well-documented.
Policies and practices should be reviewed regularly with employment counsel to ensure they effectively address organizational needs.