Diverse Docket: College’s Religious Affiliation no Shield Against Bias Complaint - Higher Education
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Diverse Docket: College’s Religious Affiliation no Shield Against Bias Complaint

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by Eric Freedman

A private college’s religious affiliation doesn’t automatically shield it from liability for racial discrimination, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has ruled.

The appellate panel unanimously rejected Chestnut Hill College’s argument that the state Human Relations Commission has no jurisdiction over a discrimination complaint filed by an African American student who was expelled for alleged theft and forgery.

The court ordered the commission to decide whether the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act is unconstitutional as applied to the college.

Chestnut Hill is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and had not registered as a religious institution with the commission.

The college argued that it isn’t a “public accommodation” under state civil rights law and that First Amendment freedom of religion bars the commission from reviewing its expulsion decisions. However, the court said even religious educational institutions aren’t exempt from discrimination claims.

The controversy involves Allan-Michael Meads, a senior who was accused of misusing the proceeds of African American plays he directed during Black History Month in 2012. He denied any wrongdoing, provided receipts and a bank statement to show how the money was spent. He also offered to repay any amount the college believed he owed, but the college rejected his offer, the decision said.

Chestnut Hill expelled him a few weeks before graduation.

Meads complained to the commission, which “determined that African-American students were punished disproportionately higher than other college students” at Chestnut Hill, according to the decision.

The college challenged the commission’s jurisdiction to handle the complaint.

In an opinion written by Judge Robert Simpson, the Commonwealth Court refused to “absolutely exclude” Chestnut Hill “from the definition of ‘public accommodation’ based on its religious nature but said the college may present evidence to the commission that it is “distinctly private” under state civil rights laws.

The court found no First Amendment grounds to block the commission from reviewing the complaint, saying the college failed to “cite any religious doctrine-based defense to the student’s racial discrimination claims. The college does not contend the alleged discriminatory practice — racially motivated expulsion — is required by its religious doctrine.”

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Nor did the college show how commission review of the complaint under the state’s religiously neutral anti-discrimination law would create an “unconstitutional entanglement” with “ecclesiastical matters,” the court said. “We cannot assume that the alleged entanglement will occur without a showing that the racial discrimination claim and related investigation requires interpretation of Catholic doctrine.”

Title IX claim

When it comes to handling sexual harassment complaints, a college may try to do the right thing and act with the right motives but still run into trouble.

That’s the message from a federal judge in Greenbelt, Maryland, who has allowed a tenured faculty member fired for sexual harassment to pursue part of his suit against McDaniel College.

U.S. District Judge George Hazel refused to dismiss Title IX claims filed by Dr. Pavel Naumov but threw out allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of his due process rights.

Naumov began as an assistant professor of computer science in 2005 and was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 2011, the decision said.

In 2014, a female department colleague notified the provost that she planned to resign to take another job, largely because of what she contended was sexual harassment and stalking by Naumov, according to the decision. That behavior allegedly included frequent comments about her appearance and clothing, insisting on walking her to her car every day and an unwelcome lunch invitation.

The female faculty member asked to remain anonymous, and the provost reported her complaints to the college’s Title IX advisor, who ordered an investigation, the decision said. After the investigation, the provost offered Naumov the opportunity to resign, but he refused, so the college suspended him with full pay and barred him from campus.

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The provost then filed a formal grievance listing herself rather than the female faculty member as complainant. After hearings, the grievance committee found Naumov responsible for harassment, retaliation and hostile environment but not for stalking. An appeals panel upheld the hostile environment and harassment findings, the president recommended his dismissal for serious professional misconduct and the board of trustees affirmed his dismissal in 2015.

The suit accused McDaniel, a private college, of firing him based on gender and in violation of his contractual rights under the college’s Title IX policy.

In his ruling, Hazel said there was evidence that the college violated its own Title IX policy requiring a complainant who is willing to be identified for a claim to proceed. “The complainant and the person harassed (must be) one and same” under the policy.

He rejected the college’s argument that the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” required it to take the steps it did. He noted that the college had three years after the letter to change its policy to correct any possible inconsistencies with the letter,

However, Hazel found no evidence that gender basis motivated the allegedly erroneous outcome of his termination, that Naumov suffered severe emotional distress or that the college violated his constitutional right to due process.

“It is possible for an individual or individual to seek to do the right thing, motivated by proper motives and, yet, do so in the wrong way,” he said. “This may be such a case.”

Bias suit fails

A former Bangladeshi-American adjunct faculty member at the City University of New York has lost a suit alleging racial, national origin, religion, disability and age discrimination arising from his reassignment to a course he didn’t want to teach.

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U.S. District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf dismissed a Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment and Americans with Disabilities Act suit filed by Khandaker Ahmed. He had taught introductory economics on a part-time basis for 12 years, the last nine of them at CUNY’s York College, the decision said, while simultaneously teaching full-time at a high school.

In 2014, the chair of the college’s Business and Economics Department notified Ahmed that he would teach intermediate rather than introductory economics the following semester. Ahmed complained to his union and dean.

Two weeks after being told of the reassignment, he submitted a medical note saying stress from his two teaching jobs had aggravated his diabetes. The physician suggested that he be allowed to teach the introductory course as an accommodation, but the chair denied that request and Ahmed stopped teaching at York, the decision said.

The suit alleged that the department chair had a “preference for” African-American faculty members and was “phasing out” other faculty, including South Asians.

CUNY asked Mauskopf to throw out the suit, which she did.

Ahmed’s Title VII discrimination claim fell short because his reassignment to the intermediate-level course was not an adverse employment action and did not include a cut in pay she ruled.

She said sovereign immunity shields New York state from the disability claims.

And she said Ahmed didn’t show that his termination was in retaliation for complaints to a union representative and the dean about his reassignment. To the contrary, the chair had decided to change Ahmed’s assignment came before Ahmed complained to either CUNY or the New York Department of Human Rights.

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