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10th Circuit shields Wichita State president from #MeToo-era harassment case

A social work professor said she suffered years of harassment and that the school leader told her to stop pursuing her administrative complaint.

(CN) — Reversing a lower court, the 10th Circuit on Monday granted qualified immunity to the president of Wichita State University in a former professor’s sexual harassment complaint.

Social work professor Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm claimed then-provost and current university president Dr. Richard Muma failed to intervene when coworkers tried to discredit her work by accusing her of sleeping her way into a promotion. A three-judge 10th Circuit panel sided with Muma in finding he had no duty to intervene while the university was investigating Countryman-Roswurm’s claims.

"Dr. Countryman-Roswurm opposes qualified immunity on the ground that Dr. Muma acquiesced in the harassment. But these precedents didn’t involve acquiescence when the institution itself was already investigating the same complaint,” U.S. Circuit Judge Robert E. Bacharach wrote in Monday's nine-page opinion.

“Dr. Countryman-Roswurm acknowledges that the university was investigating her complaints through the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, which had been designated to monitor and oversee implementation of equal opportunity law and compliance with Title IX,” the Barack Obama appointee continued.

Countryman-Roswurm started working at Wichita State University’s School of Social Work in 2013 as a full-time assistant professor. At the dean’s suggestion, she established and led the Center for Combating Human Trafficking.

The department chair said she must have slept with her supervisor to obtain the position.

Although she ultimately obtained tenure, Countryman-Roswurm said the rumor damaged her reputation and that she was subjected to harassment throughout her employment. In 2018, she filed a formal complaint with the university.

“Dr. Countryman-Roswurm downplays the university’s investigation as a ‘sham.’ But in the complaint, she did not allege that Dr. Muma had regarded the university’s investigation as a sham,” Bacharach wrote. “Without such an allegation, Dr. Countryman-Roswurm hasn’t shown how deficiencies in the investigation would have alerted Dr. Muma to a constitutional duty to act.”

Years before she sued, Muma advised Countryman-Roswurm to drop her complaint and even tried to get her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, according to court documents. Since Kansas’ statute of limitations only extends two years, the 10th Circuit found Countryman-Roswurm couldn’t sue Muma over the incident.

In October 2020, the university removed Countryman-Roswurm from her director position and closed the Center for Combating Human Trafficking. One year later, on Oct. 25, 2021, Countryman-Roswurm sued Wichita State, along with Muma and other colleagues under the state Civil Rights Act and federal Title IX.

A federal judge previously granted qualified immunity to all other individual defendants, but the case remains intact against Wichita State University as an entity.

Attorneys representing the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Obama-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips and George W. Bush-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips rounded out the panel.

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Categories / Appeals, Education, Employment

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