UR’s law team violated confidentiality of 23 witnesses in the federal lawsuit pitting UR against former students and employees who say they were retaliated against for coming forward with sexual harassment allegations. This is the third time UR has faced criticism relating to confidentiality in the fallout of accusations against professor T. Florian Jaeger.
On the evening of Sept. 25, Ward Greenberg — the law firm representing UR — failed to remove a key of the pseudonyms and identities of anonymous witnesses from court documents before filing them on the federal court document database PACER, where they were accessible to the public until the next morning.
The move, described by UR and its lawyers as an error, sparked outcry from the complainants and witnesses, even causing one witness to come forward publicly.
“I would like to say that I was shocked but I feel like nothing really shocks me anymore,” said Meredith Brown, the anonymous witness who, after learning of the breach, decided to make her identity public.
Brown said she was in Jaeger’s lab for her first year of graduate school, but after witnessing and experiencing harassment from Jaeger, she left the lab and switched her research focus. Brown got her PhD in 2014, and told the Campus Times that she now works outside of academia.
Brown said she was at first comfortable with anonymity after her time at UR, but after her connection as a witness was made public, now thinks that the threat of exposure gave UR an advantage.
“The fact that this happened made me realize that my desire to remain anonymous can and is being used against me and the other witnesses,” Brown said. “A lot of whom are in positions where they’re more vulnerable to retaliation and intimidation than I am.”
“It ensures that other witnesses will not come forward because they won’t be guaranteed to be able to do so anonymously, now that the unmasking has occurred,” Jessica Cantlon, one of the complainants, said.
In an email to CT, Brown added she hoped her move might lead to “accountability for the University and their legal team for the violation of privacy and the real harm they have caused” to the anonymous witnesses.
Brown said she worries that people with similar complaints will now be discouraged to come forward because of this incident.
“If my coming forward and speaking out about this can have any sort of effect against that,” Brown said. “Then that would be something I hope would come out of this.”
Judge Lawrence Vilardo had allowed the 23 witnesses be kept anonymous and be referred to with pseudonyms, on the condition that McAllister Olivarius — the firm representing the complainants — provide a key to Ward Greenberg.
As part of their press release on the matter, McAllister Olivarius included a letter of apology from Ward Greenberg, dated Sept. 26, the same day the key was restricted after having been public for more than 13 hours. The letter, signed by Eric J. Ward, said Ward Greenberg is working to discover if anyone accessed the key while it was public.
“We ask anyone who accessed this filing prior to the restricted designation to respect the privacy of the individuals identified,” a statement from Ward Greenberg said. “And [we] apologize for this disclosure.”
This is not the University’s first confidentiality controversy. In the report from Mary Jo White — hired by UR — on the Jaeger scandal, confidentiality promises made to witnesses were broken. Before that, a UR-funded report found that the first investigation into allegations against Jaeger also breached confidentiality, when complainant Celeste Kidd’s identity was disclosed.
A statement from UR said “we sincerely regret that this mistake occurred.”
But for some, an apology isn’t enough.
“There is no taking this back,” Cantlon said. “You can’t give them their privacy back.”