A former Yale Spanish and Portuguese professor’s lawsuit against Yale has been partially cleared to go to trial — potentially allowing a jury to evaluate her allegations that her department wrongfully denied her tenure after she spoke out against sexual harassment. 

In a memorandum of decision late last month, a U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut judge cleared parts of professor Susan Byrne’s lawsuit — which alleges that she lost her department’s tenure vote out of retaliation for speaking out against sexual harassment — to proceed to trial. The case’s progression comes after Yale filed a summary judgement motion to dismiss Byrne’s claims last year. If Byrne and Yale do not broker a settlement, the lawsuit could go before a jury as early as mid-May. Byrne is seeking reinstatement with tenure at the University, according to her complaint.

“[The] ruling makes clear that a reasonable jury could find Yale University liable for violation of the state and federal laws in the complaint,” Claire Howard, one of Byrne’s lawyers, wrote in an email to the News, “because the senior faculty members Professors Adorno, Gonzalez Echevarria, and Valis could be found to have retaliated against Dr. Byrne in the manner described in the decision, and Yale University breached her employment contract when these individuals refused to recuse themselves from her tenure vote.”

The former associate professor now teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and chairs the Hispanic studies department. But during her time at Yale, Byrne said she experienced a hostile work environment perpetuated by three senior professors in the Spanish and Portuguese department. Specifically, she alleges that Sterling Professor Roberto González Echevarría GRD ’70 sexually harassed her on four separate occasions. According to the suit, when Byrne decided to speak up about these and other episodes, the senior professors refused to recuse themselves from her upcoming tenure vote — which Byrne says was a conflict of interest. In approving the case for trial, Judge Vanessa Bryant wrote that a reasonable jury could find this move a breach of contract, and her tenure denial could be seen as retaliation.

 

The judge did agree to grant Yale’s motion for summary judgement on some parts, siding with Yale on certain counts of retaliation based on the senior professors’ decision to deny Byrne leave in 2013 and on negligent misrepresentation. 

Byrne initially filed suit a year after a Faculty Review Committee investigation concluded that her department fairly evaluated her scholarship “on its merits” and that there was “no evidence of retaliation,” according to Judge Bryant’s memorandum. The three senior professors who denied her vote — former department chair Rolena Adorno, González Echevarría and former Director of Graduate Studies Noël Valis — and University spokeswoman Karen Peart did not respond to several requests for comment. Yale’s lawyers named in the lawsuit did not return the News’ inquiries.

Byrne alleges González Echevarría approached her from behind and played with her hair during her first year at Yale. In 2014, Byrne said he kissed her on the mouth without consent at a party in front of hundreds of attendees, pantomimed sexual activity while standing up and directed her to sit on a small “love couch” that would have forced her onto his lap.

After Byrne came forward about the department’s work environment, she asked the three professors to recuse themselves from her vote in line with conflict-of-interest guidelines found in the Faculty Handbook. Internal department emails uncovered during court proceedings show what Bryant calls “deep-seated, mutual distrust and animosity” among the three professors and Byrne in the months leading up to her vote in early 2016.

According to emails found in the lawsuit, Adorno sent parts of Byrne’s recusal request to a Yale mental health professional to evaluate her mental state. González Echevarría called Byrne “diabolical” in an email to a colleague at another university. And all three thought she was behind an anonymous letter that circulated the department in early 2015 and sparked a University climate review, court documents show. Byrne has denied involvement in the letter.

Court documents also allege that Adorno, Valis and González Echevarría may have sought to protect themselves during the University climate review by ensuring their statements lined up. A memorandum from Byrne’s lawyers alleges that Yale Law School professor Kate Stith reviewed and edited documents the three professors submitted to the climate review, accompanied them to their interviews, tape-recorded the conversations and shared information among and between them. And, according to the memorandum, Stith allegedly “also instructed the three Professors on what sexual harassment incidents to admit having prior knowledge of” — advice concealed from the climate review interviewers. Former Yale General Counsel and current judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit José Cabranes — Stith’s husband — advised the law professor on how to generally avoid the appearance of a conflict-of-interest, according to emails found in court documents. 

Stith and Cabranes did not respond to requests for comment. 

In court filings, Yale’s lawyers allege that the three professors found problems with Byrne’s scholarship, citing external referee letters that criticized her writing and compared her third book to a “minimally revised dissertation.” They later voted against her tenure, according to court documents.

But her attorney Jacques Parentau alleged that concerns with her scholarship only arose after Byrne spoke up about the harassment and bullying.


“You don’t have to go to Yale to figure out this is retaliation,” he told the News in 2017.

A Title IX investigation into González Echevarría’s behavior resulted in a one-semester unpaid suspension and a ban restricting him from holding administrative positions for five years, Byrne’s complaint states. Adorno also lost her spot as chair, and decision-making power in the department was given to an outside group of professors for several years.

Since then, department Director of Graduate Studies Aníbal González-Pérez GRD ’82 said that the overall climate has improved. Graduate recruitment has nearly risen to levels from before the public controversies began — a significant improvement from 2015 when no graduate student matriculated.

“Those changes were long-overdue, and I believe they have been good for the department,” Byrne wrote in an email to the News. “And of course I would be happy to be back at Yale! There are many excellent scholars and wonderful people there, including some in [the department]. The libraries are absolute heaven, and I definitely miss the university.”

González-Pérez told the News that Byrne “is an outstanding specialist in the Spanish Renaissance and Golden Age (17th century)” and that if the University reinstated her with tenure, her presence would “further strengthen and bring new approaches to one of our traditional fields.”

Byrne joined UNLV in 2016.

 

 

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu