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Fired professor wins one, loses another appeal

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A tenured English professor at the University of Evansville who was fired after an inappropriate interaction with a fellow professor lost his appeal against his co-worker, but his case against the university will proceed.

John Haegert, who had informal complaints noted in his file from female students regarding inappropriate language and touching, approached Professor Margaret McMullan while she was interviewing a prospective student. Haegert said “Hi, sweetie” and touched McMullan’s face and neck in a tickling gesture while she was speaking with the prospective student’s family. She was offended by his conduct. Haegert claimed he was in a happy mood that day because he learned his wife was free of cancer.

A formal complaint was filed, and a review committee determined the behavior violated the university’s no-tolerance sexual harassment policy. Haegert was later fired because of that incident. Haegert appealed to the university board of trustees, which concurred with his termination.  He then filed a complaint against McMullan alleging defamation, tortious breach of his contract, and infliction of emotional distress. He also sued the university, claiming its decision to terminate his employment for violation of the sexual harassment policy was a breach of his tenure contract.

In two separate decisions, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for McMullan, but reversed summary judgment for the university with regards to Haegert’s complaint against the University of Evansville. In John Haegert v. Margaret McMullan, No. 82A04-1008-CT-470, the judges found that the specific statements Haegert believed were defamatory weren’t sufficiently identified by him in his complaint. Also, regarding statements contained in a file kept by McMullan, he failed to show how he was injured by the contents in that file regarding previous informal complaints made by students. Haegert’s termination was based only on the incident involving McMullan as the other complaints were never officially filed by the students. The COA also found that there wasn’t properly designated evidence in the record that McMullan intended to cause Haegert emotional distress.

In John Haegert v. University of Evansville, No. 82A01-1008-PL-369, the appellate court was divided, with the majority finding that the university didn’t satisfy the burden of proof that Haegert had committed sexual harassment in the form of a hostile work environment before terminating his employment.

The majority noted that the university has a zero-tolerance policy, with Judge James Kirsch writing, “One of the problems with the treatment of sexual harassment is the failure to distinguish between assault and trivial behavior. This problem is magnified by zero-tolerance polices such as the one here, where the consequence for any of a range of behaviors can result in the termination of one’s employment.”

The majority remanded for further proceedings, but Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented. She argued that the case is governed by the university’s zero-tolerance harassment and sexual harassment policy, and that Haegert knew a violation of his employment contract was cause for termination.
 

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