Nearly all of the claims presented in a lawsuit have a legal basis to proceed, a judge ruled, setting the stage for a showdown in court over allegations that UR retaliated against and defamed nine former students and faculty affiliated with complaints against professor T. Florian Jaeger.
United States District Judge Lawrence Vilardo, in allowing most of the claims to proceed, established that those claims, if true, describe illegal behavior on the part of the University.
Of the more than 15 charges levied against the University, only two — that complainant Elissa Newport was retaliated against under Title VII, and that a special committee of the Board of Trustees defamed the complainants — were dismissed in their entirety. Vilardo ruled the Board of Trustees statement wasn’t defamatory, and that Newport was not protected by Title VII because when the alleged retaliation occurred, she was not at UR.
Vilardo’s decision neither verifies nor debunks any of the claims.
“For us, this is certainly a vindication,” Steven Piantadosi, one of the complainants, told the Campus Times. “It’s a vindication of our attorneys and what they had told us all along about the legal standards. […] In terms of our case, you know I think it’s a clearly good step for us in legal terms.”
UR praised Vilardo’s decision to dismiss a few of the claims and expressed optimism about the remaining charges.
“The University is pleased that [Vilardo] has dismissed several of the claims contained in the civil case […] and has required the plaintiffs to file a clearer complaint containing only their surviving claims,” the University said in a statement. “Although this ruling does not end the litigation, the University is confident that it will prevail on the legal and factual merits of the remaining claims.”
Vilardo’s decision comes over a year after UR motioned to dismiss charges from the lawsuit, which also accused former University President Joel Seligman and Provost Robert Clark of wrongdoing. The charges stem from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that argues UR retaliated against employees and students who came forward about Jaeger’s alleged harassment.
One of the focal points of the complaint was how UR handled the Nearpass Report, the University’s initial investigation of the sexual misconduct claims. Vilardo ruled that UR’s decision to reveal the identities of complainants Celeste Kidd, Richard Aslin, and Jessica Cantlon could plausibly discourage an employee from taking action in a harassment or retaliation situation.
“The @UofR tried to claim it was legal to deanonymize me, after they cast doubt on my statements, without looking at the evidence. They were wrong,” Kidd said in an Aug. 29 tweet following the decision’s release.
In Vilardo’s decision, he allowed the plaintiffs to move forward with the claim that the UR-ordered investigation led by former SEC Chair Mary Jo White was an act of retaliation.
The plaintiffs say UR used the White probe to call their character into question, knowing they could not participate in the investigation due to the ongoing litigation.
Vilardo wrote that this action could discourage employees from making future reports of discrimination.
Plaintiff Keturah Bixby’s Title IX hostile work environment claim was also allowed to proceed. Now, she and the other plaintiffs have to provide evidence to back up their claims.
Ann Olivarius, their attorney, said that they will submit amended complaints to the judge in the coming weeks. Following that, they will have a conference with the judge to kick off the discovery process, where they plan on requesting all information that the White investigation used, records from a restorative justice session Jaeger’s lawyer said he participated in, and the personnel records of Jaeger and others from the BCS department. Olivarius also said they will look at pay structure documents to check for unfair pay differences.
“Now that Judge Vilardo has not dismissed our claims,” Newport said in an email to the Campus Times. “We look forward to finally being able to depose the members of the University and Department administration who have been part of the retaliation against us.”