When Enrichetta R. filed a sexual harassment complaint against a senior colleague at Columbia University business school, she may have expected some push-back. Although retaliation if illegal, it's unfortunately not uncommon for some form of retaliation to occur after a discrimination complaint.
According to a recent lawsuit, her colleague did not respond well to the complaint. She claims that he intentionally stalled her research and tried to keep her from getting tenure. Then, she says, he went much farther and tried to get her blacklisted in the field. He wrote at least 30 emails telling industry leaders at the Federal Reserve Bank, economic journals and other top-tier universities that Enrichetta was "evil" and "crazy." He often sent these emails from his Columbia account.
"Imagine if you apply for jobs and someone very powerful and influential in your profession had said that you are unstable, difficult to work with, a liar, not good at your job," she testified in the case.
Enrichetta sued both the colleague and Columbia for gender discrimination and retaliation. She asked for $16 million.
The jury seems to have parsed the issues closely. They decided that neither the colleague nor Columbia had discriminated against the woman, but they determined that the retaliation had nevertheless taken place. Both the retaliating professor and Columbia were to be held legally responsible.
The jury awarded the woman $750,000 in compensation for her losses and damage to her reputation -- an amount to be paid by both the retaliating professor and the university. On top of that, the jury awarded $500,000 in punitive damages meant to punish wrongdoing. That amount is to be paid by the professor alone.
In a statement, the professor focused on the idea that he had been cleared of sexual harassment and claimed that the jury had found he did nothing to damage Enrichetta's chances at tenure. For its part, Columbia stated that it "prohibits retaliation against any member of its community and very much regrets the actions by our faculty member in this matter."
This case illustrates an important concept. Retaliation is unlawful whenever someone makes a good faith complaint about discrimination or harassment. The underlying complaint does not have to be shown to be true for a retaliation claim to be brought.
"The $1.25 million in damages in this case should send a clear message to Columbia University and the world of higher education that workplace retaliation and abuse of power in academia will not be tolerated," said the woman's attorney.