Former security education coordinator for the Yale Police Department Susan Burhans filed a suit against Yale on Friday afternoon, alleging that her attempts to notify administrators of the University’s noncompliance with Title IX led to her unfair dismissal.
Wendy Murphy, an attorney on Burhans’ legal team, said the case is framed as a Title IX retaliation suit, as Burhans allegedly brought information concerning violations of Title IX and related laws to University administrators but was repeatedly met with hostility or indifference. The complaint claims that Burhans uncovered several University policies over the past decade that promoted a hostile sexual climate on campus and warranted overhaul. Despite her attempts to alert officials of her concerns after she was hired in 1999, administrators ignored her efforts and retaliated by stripping her of job responsibilities and terminating her position, Murphy said.
University Spokesman Tom Conroy said in an email to the News that Yale has not yet officially been served with the complaint, but that the lawsuit is “baseless and Yale will defend it vigorously.”
Burhans’ claims follow a 15-month Title IX investigation that ended in June by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into Yale’s sexual climate, and several parts of her complaint cite the agreement made between the University and the OCR.
“[Burhans]’s suit is focused on the retaliation she experienced over a period of many years,” said Murphy, who is a an adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston and a well-known victims’ rights advocate. “She was either rebuffed or punished for trying to fix problems at Yale. She really has suffered as a person and watched people on campus suffering, and she found it unacceptable.”
The suit filed Friday states that throughout a 10-year period, Burhans noticed an unhealthy sexual climate relating to alcohol abuse and inadequate resources to report cases of sexual misconduct. When Burhans allegedly notified Associate Vice President Martha Highsmith, then deputy secretary of the University, that Yale was underreporting cases of sexual misconduct, Highsmith and other administrators prevented Burhans from establishing new programs to promote a safe environment in compliance with Title IX and related laws, according to the complaint.
Burhans’ position as a security education coordinator was terminated in March 2010. She was later rehired as a project manager with no responsibilities related to Title IX. That position has also since been terminated, effective in November.
Burhans has previously sued the University regarding her employment. In May 2009, she filed suit in Connecticut Superior Court against the University on two counts of violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act. Burhans alleged at the time that she was asked to interview with an all-male, four-person panel — an instance of possible gender discrimination — and that she never received any of the several promotions with increased compensation she was promised. The 2009 suit claimed that after filing complaints with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, administrators began to take away her responsibilities. Connecticut court records show that her 2009 allegations were deemed insufficient to constitute a hostile work environment claim, but similar allegations are repeated in the current complaint.
The new suit repeatedly points to Yale’s July 2012 “voluntary resolution agreement” with the OCR as evidence, said John Williams, Burhans’ New Haven-based attorney, because the report confirmed the University’s accountability for the same issues that Burhans brought to administrators’ attention many years prior.
“Yale at the end of the day admitted they were doing these things,” Williams said. “These [are] very things Susan warned them about and tried to fix.”
While the OCR did not find Yale in noncompliance with Title IX, its report said the University had provided inadequate resources for the reporting of sexual misconduct incidents, failed to make students aware of its existing programs and had severely underreported cases of sexual assault and harassment in recent years.
Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said that in the aftermath of Yale’s Title IX controversy, he is not surprised that employees would try to bring employee disputes to the federal level through claims of Title IX violations.
“The tough job for the court is to sort out what rises above the level of messy employment disputes,” he said.
Though Murphy said much of the evidence in the suit could support a case for a violation of Title VII — which prohibits employee discrimination based on sex — she added that Title IX is more applicable to the case because it involves the prevention of Burhans from implementing programs essential to improving sexual climate.
“Title IX is very broad in scope in terms of [whom] it means to protect, meaning both students and all people in the campus environment, from both sexual harassment as an individual harm and any kind of retaliation in the effort to reduce that harm,” Murphy said.
The OCR’s investigation began in April 2011 when 16 students and alumni filed a complaint alleging Yale had allowed a hostile sexual environment to persist.