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Supreme Court upholds trial court’s ruling on professor’s dismissal

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Despite a professor’s claim that he was in a joyous mood when he interacted with a colleague and his actions were harmless, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld his dismissal from his tenured teaching position.

The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the University of Evansville in John Haegert v. University of Evansville, No. 82S01-1204-PL-235.

Margaret McMullan, then the English Department chair, filed a formal complaint against Haegert following an incident on Aug. 25, 2004. As she was interviewing a prospective student and the student’s parents in the department lounge, Haegert walked over to McMullan, called her “Sweetie” and stroked his fingers under her chin and along her neck. He had engaged in similar behavior before which had elicited complaints and investigations.   

After conducting a disciplinary review, the university dismissed Haegert. He then filed a complaint against the school, alleging multiple breaches of his employment contract. The trial court granted the university’s motion for summary judgment.

Subsequently, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, concluding the university failed to carry its burden of proof with respect to the sexual harassment complaint.

In granting transfer, the Supreme Court distilled the case down to two primary points of contention.

The first point focuses on Haegert’s conduct on Aug. 25, 2004, and whether it was harassment and, therefore, subject to dismissal and rescission of his contract. If so, the second point concerns whether the university followed the proper procedures as set forth in Haegert’s contract.

The Supreme Court noted the faculty manual makes clear that it is not only the intent behind the conduct that matters but also the effect of the conduct. The effect of Haegert’s verbal and physical conduct unreasonably interfered with McMullan’s work, creating an offensive office environment by making her uncomfortable and disrupting the work she was doing. Irrespective of his intent, the court ruled, his conduct nearly directly mirrors the faculty manual’s stated examples of what constitutes sexual harassment.

In addition, the Supreme Court found the university did comply with the provision of Haegert’s employment contract. Specifically, Haegert did receive notice of the complaint and the potential disciplinary action. He then had four separate opportunities before four distinct and neutral panels to tell his side of the story.

“Despite all this,” Justice Steven David wrote for the court, “he failed to persuade any individual, at any stage of the process. It is hard to imagine what additional process the University might have provided Haegert.”



 

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