DENVER (CN) — The president of Wichita State University asked the 10th Circuit on Wednesday to invoke qualified immunity and shield him from a professor’s #MeToo-era civil rights suit claiming yearslong sexual harassment.
Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm started working at Wichita State University’s School of Social Work in 2013 as a full-time assistant professor. After the dean suggested she open a center to focus on her work fighting human trafficking, 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.
Then-provost and current university president Dr. Richard Muma advised Countryman-Roswurm to drop her complaint and tried to get her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, according to court documents. 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 granted qualified immunity to all individual defendants except Muma. He appealed.
Before a 10th Circuit panel on Wednesday, Muma's attorney Michael Raupp of Husch Blackwell characterized Countryman-Roswurm as a disgruntled employee dissatisfied with the results of the university’s investigation, and that Muma’s job was to largely stay out of the way.
U.S. Circuit Judge Robert E. Bacharach, appointed by Barack Obama, asked whether the university was conducting a sham investigation.
“The complaint characterizes it that way, but there is no independent seperate imperative for Dr. Muma to do his own investigation when the university was conducting one,” Raupp replied. “There is no claim that Dr. Muma thought it was a sham.”
Raupp also argued the 2-year statute of limitations barred Countryman-Roswurm from filing claims against Muma for telling her to drop her harassment case.
Countryman-Roswurm's attorney Alexander Edelman told the panel the Muma's comment remained relevant evidence in establishing the yearslong practice of discrimination and had been allowed by the lower court.
“That’s evidence of the sham process, and that doesn’t become not true in the interim,” Edelman, who practices with the Kansas City firm Edelman Liesen and Myers, told the panel. “Muma knew about the process and told Countryman-Roswurm she wouldn’t get relief through it, because he knew the process would never find in favor of an employee.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips, also an Obama appointee, listened intently to the proceedings with his head on his chin.
“What would you have Muma do?” Phillips asked.
Edelman pointed to the fact that the harassment dated back years.
“Tell the employees to cut it out,” Edelman said. “He knew this was going on for years, and should have told them to stop spreading the rumors. The nature of acquiesce is that it’s ongoing.”
U.S. Circuit Judge Timothy Tymkovich, a George W. Bush appointee, presided over the case which was held at the Byron White U.S. Courthouse in downtown Denver and broadcast over YouTube. The panel did not indicate when or how they would decide the issue.
Countryman-Roswurm’s complaint against the university is in the discovery phase in the District of Kansas.
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