A former secretary at the School of Medicine is suing Yale for monetary damages, charging that the head of the department of pharmacology sexually harassed her throughout her three-year employment and the University did nothing to stop him.
Mary Beth Garceau filed a complaint last week with the U.S. District Court alleging that her supervisor, chair of pharmacology Joseph Schlessinger, made repeated lewd observations and suggestions to her, from telling jokes about penis size to showing her hard-core pornography. The harassment started on her first day of work in 2001, she said, and continued until her resignation nearly three years later. The complaint further claims that Yale refused to address her concerns when she brought the situation to the attention of University officials, forcing her to resign because of the situation.
But Yale spokesperson Tom Conroy said the University did not act illegally.
“The University does not believe there was a violation of law, and it will defend itself in the suit,” Conroy said.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which applies to any institution that receives federal funding, sex-based discrimination — including sexual harassment — is illegal. Yale’s sexual harassment policy defines sexual harassment as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature on or off campus that interferes with an individual’s employment or academic standing. Sexual harassment also includes situations in which granting or denying sexual favors is tied to an individual’s job or evaluation.
Schlessinger, University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson, and School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern declined to comment.
Garceau stated in the complaint that University officials protected Schlessinger when she informed them of the situation and told her that not only would her complaints be ignored, but that she would be the subject of investigations into her own conduct. As a result, the complaint said, Garceau resigned in March 2004.
“The University and said officials gave every indication that the plaintiff’s complaints would not only be ignored but the plaintiff was the subject of unwarranted accusations and investigations into her own conduct and became the focus of the University’s investigative efforts, all in an attempt to descredit her and protect the standing of Dr. Schlessinger,” the complaint said.
Under the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, retaliation against an individual who has complained about sex discrimination violates Title IX.
Garceau alleged that Schlessinger initiated numerous conversations with her about sex, the size of her breasts and the style of her underwear. During her first months at the department of pharmacology, according to the complaint, he told her about his sexual infidelity during his business travels and bragged about the number of women he had slept with.
In several incidents over the next year, Schlessinger showed Garceau pictures of naked women and, on one occasion, a hard-core pornography Web site, the complaint alleged.
Schlessinger claimed that a photo of a naked woman without a head was his wife, Irit Lax, an assistant professor in the pharmacology department, the complaint stated. While he was showing Garceau the photo, according to the account, Lax walked in and started yelling at her husband.
Lax did not respond to requests for comment.
Garceau is seeking back pay and benefits, compensatory damages and punitive damages from Yale of an amount to be determined by a jury. Garceau and her attorney could not be reached for comment.
Schlessinger has been the chair of Yale’s department of pharmacology since 2001. His research on signal transduction has led to the development of drugs for the treatment of cancer and other diseases caused by enzyme malfunction.