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Grad Student Gets Boost in Gender Bias Dispute

(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Wednesday revived the retaliation claims of a former doctoral student who says gender discrimination forced her to abandon her studies at the University of Oregon.

Monica Emeldi says her dissertation advisor in the education department dumped her after she complained in a memo and during a meeting with administrators about a general lack of support for female doctoral candidates in the department. After asking 15 other professors to work with her, and being turned down time and again, Emeldi says she had to give up on her Ph.D. altogether.

Emeldi claimed in her lawsuit against the university that Professor Robert Horner suspiciously withdrew as her adviser just weeks after she told administrators that he was distant, inaccessible and gave male students perks like better offices and access to technology. She also claims that simultaneous pursuit of her grievance against Horner complicated her search for a replacement adviser.

The university argued that the relationship between Emeldi and Horner went south because Emeldi refused to follow his scholarly advice, and that her failure to obtain a degree had nothing to do with her gender.

U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene granted summary judgment to the school, finding that Emeldi had not engaged in a protected activity and had failed to show evidence of discrimination.

In its first ruling on just what a plaintiff must prove to win a Title IX retaliation claim, the 9th Circuit revived Emeldi's claims for another look.

Two out of three judges on the Portland-based appellate panel found Emeldi's statements to the administrators amounted to protected activity under Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination by federally funded educational institutions. Emeldi has also provided enough evidence to suggest, at least for summary-judgment purposes, that Horner had quit as her adviser because of her discrimination complaint, according to the court.

"The proximity in time between Emeldi's complaints of unequal treatment and Horner's resignation as Emeldi's dissertation chair; [an administrator's] admission that she relayed Emeldi's complaints to Horner; Horner's resignation without providing assistance in securing a replacement chair; other evidence of Horner's gender-based animus; Horner's [previous] praise for Emeldi; and Emeldi's inability to secure a replacement dissertation chair, all considered together, could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Emeldi's complaints of unequal treatment, and not Horner's dissatisfaction with her research, motivated Horner's resignation," Judge Ronald Gould wrote for the majority.

Writing in dissent, Judge Raymond Fisher argued that Emeldi could simply have been frustrated with her academic failures.

"Ms. Emeldi ... has not shown that the problems she experienced in her Ph.D. program, and particularly with her supervising faculty advisor, Dr. Horner, were the result of gender discrimination rather than an unfortunate - but not unlawful - breakdown in the academic relationship between a master professor and a graduate student," he wrote. "The record plainly reveals Emeldi's frustration with her lack of progress on completing her Ph.D. studies and her dissertation, including problems she attributed to Horner as her dissertation chair. She became so frustrated that she finally complained to University administrators. She may have believed these problems and Dr. Horner's actions were caused by his bias against her as a woman. But this is a retaliation case, where it is critical that she present evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Horner (a) knew she believed him to be gender biased, and (b) resigned in retaliation because she made such an allegation. She simply has not done so, no matter how sympathetic one might be to her academic disappointments."

Though the trial court had awarded costs to the university, Wednesday's reversal vacates that order as well.

Emeldi's attorney David Force did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday morning. Neither did the Oregon Attorney General's Office, which represented the university.

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