CHICAGO (CN) – Southern Illinois University adequately addressed claims by a male student that he was sexually harassed by a former professor and donor, the 7th Circuit ruled.
During Samuel Milligan’s first semester as a chemistry major in 2007, he took a work-study job in the department’s chemical store rooms.
He was allegedly first approached by former professor Cal Meyers while on duty. Meyers, who is 79, allegedly commented that Milligan’s hair would make him a “very sexy lady” and squeezed his buttocks.
The incident was the first of several Milligan reported over the next few months, during which Meyers allegedly repeated made sexual comments towards Milligan and touched him inappropriately.
Meyers served as Director of the Meyers Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Organic and Medicinal Chemistry, which he had helped establish in 2000 through a $2.5 million donation. Though he no longer taught at SIU and had no authority over Milligan, he still frequented the building where Milligan worked.
Milligan and his mother met with school officials about the incidents and eventually filed a formal complaint. Meanwhile, Milligan was transferred to the second floor stockroom where he would be less likely to encounter Meyers.
After meeting with the Milligans, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Dean John Koropchak informed Meyers of the complaint.
An investigation uncovered that another Chemistry Department student employee had reported sexual harassment by Meyers previously but never filed a formal complaint. Meyers had also been reprimanded in 1995 for telling offensive jokes that may have been sexual in nature.
Concluding that Meyers had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy, Koropchak issued a letter of reprimand directing Meyers to cease all contact with student workers and attend sexual harassment training.
When Meyers failed to attend the training, he was banned from campus pending a new investigation and warned that he could be subject to arrest for trespassing.
Despite the ban, Milligan claimed to have seen Meyers on campus over twenty times. He was escorted off campus by safety personnel multiple times but was never arrested.
Milligan later changed his major to creative writing, partially to avoid contact with Meyers. He was later terminated from his position in the chemical stock rooms because performance issues. By this time Milligan had been working only one day per week and had missed work on multiple occasions.
Milligan later was hired by the Graduate School’s Admissions Office and University Ticket Office.
The incidents gave rise to two lawsuits in federal court.
Meyers sued SIU in 2008, alleging that the university had violated federal and state law through its sexual harassment investigation and expulsion from campus. The case was dismissed and an appeal is currently pending.
Milligan also sued the university, alleging that SIU subjected him to a hostile work and education environment. He also claimed that the university retaliated by terminating him from the stockroom job.
U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert dismissed Milligan’s claims.
Because Meyers was not Milligan’s supervisor, Gilbert noted, SIU could only be held liable if it acted negligently either in discovering or remedying the harassment. That was not the case here, he determined.
The 7th Circuit, voting 2-1, affirmed.
“Given the facts and circumstances before it, SIU’s response was appropriately prompt and entirely reasonable,” U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman, sitting in by designation, wrote for the majority.
“SIU’s overall response-the investigation, the prohibition on contact with students, the imposition of the training requirement, and, ultimately, the ban from campus-comprised a reasonable response to the events as they unfolded. … No reasonable jury could find that SIU’s failure to immediately learn of Meyers’ noncompliance with the training requirement rendered its response patently ineffective or a sham.”
Judge Kenneth Ripple penned a nine-page dissent, concluding that the case should proceed to trial because it presents many close questions of fact assessment.
Preventing sexual harassment is especially important in the university context, Ripple wrote.
“An institution of higher learning assumes special responsibilities for all students, but especially undergraduate students, who undertake such a formative educational experience within its walls. A breach of that trust, even in a work environment, can have dire consequences to a neophyte in the halls of higher education. If sexual harassment occurs, and especially if the perpetrator is a faculty member, the University has a responsibility to implement a remedy that restores the victim’s ability to work comfortably and effectively as a student worker.”
But Ripple’s approach “would threaten to carve a higher standard of protection for student workers than other plaintiffs,” Feinerman wrote in the majority opinion, in response to Ripple’s dissent.
“Many if not most harassment cases involve allegations that someone in a position of power harassed someone else for whom job retention is an important if not paramount consideration. The ordinary standards governing sexual harassment claims take account of this dynamic, and thus need no modification when the plaintiff is a student worker.”
Ripple fired back, “It is a significant mischaracterization of my position to suggest that I propose some sort of heightened standard of protection for student workers. I simply suggest that Mr. Milligan’s student-worker status must be included among the totality of the circumstances a jury would consider in the present case.”