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A Big Harassment Battle at Harvard ... and Other Legal News You May Have Missed

By Richard Dahl on February 15, 2022 3:16 PM

A lawsuit accusing Harvard University of ignoring sexual harassment allegations against a popular professor has created an unusually large split among its faculty.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Feb. 8 by three female graduate students in the school's Anthropology Department, contends that anthropology professor John Comaroff has been sexually harassing students for years. The plaintiffs filed complaints to Harvard's Title IX office in 2017 and 2019, but they claim that the school didn't investigate until 2020, when the Harvard Crimson and the Chronicle of Higher Education exposed Comaroff's misconduct.

The women did succeed in some ways. On Jan. 20, Harvard placed Comaroff on administrative leave for the spring semester and barred him from teaching courses through at least the next academic year. The school found that Comaroff violated policies on gender-based harassment with verbal conduct but concluded that he was not responsible for unwanted sexual contact.

The plaintiffs contend that the penalties placed on Comaroff are insufficient, but the dispute has escalated into something bigger than their case against one professor. The case has caught the attention of everyone at Harvard, including the faculty.

A few days before the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, faculty members weighed in. First, 38 faculty members signed an open letter supporting Comaroff and criticizing the sanctions the school placed on him.

Then, 73 faculty members responded to that letter with one of their own, voicing their "strong opposition" to it. "As evident from the letters written in his support, Professor Comaroff is a scholar with a powerful network of friends and colleagues," they wrote, suggesting the first letter was a maneuver to discourage other students from coming forward.

If the intent was to shame the original signers into backing down, it worked. On Feb. 9, 35 of the original 38 signers issued a new letter titled "We Retract." The signers said they "failed to appreciate the impact" their first message would have.

It does sound like they looked in the mirror and didn't like what they saw. But was it a feeling of guilt about overreacting to perceived #MeToo overreach? Or was it a realization that they were guilty of just closing ranks? Or both?

Gun Maker Settles With Sandy Hook Families

On Feb. 15, Remington Arms became the first gun manufacturer to be held liable for a mass shooting in the U.S.

Remington agreed to pay $73 million to settle liability claims from the families of five adults and four children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012.

The families argued that the weapon used in the massacre, the Bushmaster XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle, is suitable only for the military and law enforcement. They contended that Remington violated the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act by negligently entrusting its use by civilian consumers.

In Settlement, School Agrees That Racial Affinity Groups Can't Exclude

A Massachusetts school district settled a federal lawsuit that challenged its creation of affinity groups for Blacks, Latino, Asian, and other students of color.

Parents Defending Education agreed to drop the lawsuit if Wellesley Public Schools will make it clear that the groups are open to all students.

The organization argued that the creation of the groups violated students' constitutional rights.

"Because racial affinity groups divide children by race, these groups foster racial division and do far more harm than good," the group said in its complaint.

Judge: Health Care Provider Can't Prohibit Workers From Taking New Jobs

Staff shortages are straining health systems nationwide, and Wisconsin-based ThedaCare is one of them that is currently suffering.

But unlike the others, ThedaCare resorted to a highly unusual move to deal with it: When seven of its employees accepted jobs at a competing hospital, Ascension Northeast Wisconsin, ThedaCare filed for a temporary restraining order to stop them from taking new jobs until the hospital could fill their positions.

ThedaCare contended in its complaint that Ascension "poached" the seven workers. But in late January, Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Mark McGinniss ruled that ThedaCare's arguments weren't sufficient to uphold the injunction.

The workers have started their new jobs at Ascension.

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