Sexual Harassment Allegations Mount Against University Scientists, Raising Questions of Legal Remedies

Numerous recent news reports have described accounts of sexual harassment by prominent scientists working in universities around the country. Sexual harassment, in the context of federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws, is generally considered to be a form of sex discrimination. In some cases, the current allegations involve a university employee and might therefore be covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Courts have generally held that Title VII does not apply to students complaining of harassment by a teacher or professor, and many jurisdictions do not extend anti-discrimination protections to unpaid interns. Students may be able to claim discrimination based on sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Dealing with sexual harassment in academic settings still remains a challenge for many people.

Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex and other categories. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as a type of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). Sexual harassment typically takes one of two forms. “Quid pro quo” sexual harassment involves a promise of some employment-related benefit if an employee agrees to a sexual request, or a threat of adverse employment action if the employee refuses such a request. Sexual harassment resulting in a “hostile work environment” might not involve express requests for sexual contact or other activity, but instead conduct that generally renders the workplace unbearable for the employee.

Lower courts have held that students are not “employees,” and therefore they may not assert claims for sexual harassment under Title VII. This includes students working in internships as part of their studies. O’Connor v. Davis, 126 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 1997). The U.S. Supreme Court has found that Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, extends the same protections as Title VII against sexual harassment of a student by a teacher, including the right to file a private cause of action. Franklin v. Gwinnett Co. Pub. Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992).

Another aspect of the academic field that may play a role in combating sexual harassment involves research funding. Grants from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provide grants that fund a substantial amount of scientific research in the U.S. In early February 2016, an article in the scientific journal Nature noted that funders have played a role in the past in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct.

The first federal definition of “research misconduct,” the Nature article claims, was prompted in 1989 by a series of allegations of sexual misconduct—some of which may have constituted assaults—against a senior researcher who had received NSF grant funding. Sexual misconduct was removed from the official definition of research misconduct, however, between 2000 and 2002. 67 Fed. Reg. 11936 (Mar. 18, 2002), 45 C.F.R. § 689.1.

Phillips & Associates’ sexual harassment attorneys represent prospective, current, and former employees in the New York City area. We help our clients assert their rights under city, state, and federal laws for unlawful workplace practices like sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

Actors Fight Against Sexual Harassment in New York City Theater, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 29, 2016

New Laws Addressing Sexual Harassment, Pregnancy Discrimination, and Other Employment Issues Take Effect in New York, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 11, 2016

Lawsuit Against New York College Alleges Sexual Harassment Under Title IX, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 31, 2015

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