A Connecticut judge has ruled against Yale’s motion to dismiss allegations that the University and Yale New Haven Hospital inadequately responded to harassment allegations that six women leveled against Yale School of Medicine anesthesiology professor Manuel Fontes.
On Feb. 9, Connecticut federal Judge Janet Arterton rejected most of the University’s motion to dismiss the charges against it and YNHH in the sexual harassment case against Fontes, originally filed on March 12, 2020. The case is now set to move into the discovery process. According to the court documents, the defendants requested the dismissal on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not provide enough evidence on five of their claims, such as the University having received notice of Fontes’ behavior.
In the decision, Arterton ruled against all but one of the requests for dismissal, noting that all of the women said they had alerted higher-ups to Fontes’ behavior and were either ignored or brushed off. The complaint dismissed was a claim that Fontes had retaliated against the women after they spoke out.
“We’re confident that we’ll uncover in discovery that nothing was done in light of all these complaints,” said Tanvir Rahman, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs. “That’s just not something that is legally allowed, nor is it morally or ethically something that’s been tolerated.”
Rahman said that Fontes received a “slap on the wrist” after a complaint that he inappropriately danced with a young female resident. After additional complaints were made, Fontes was appointed to head up diversity and inclusion efforts in the Anesthesiology Department. Rahman said this was a “slap in the face” to the plaintiffs.
University spokesperson Karen Peart told the News that three of the six plaintiffs first approached the University with their allegations in the summer of 2019. Yale offered them support in the form of Title IX resources and advice on filing a formal complaint to the University. None of the plaintiffs wanted to file a complaint at the time, Peart wrote in an email to the News.
Not all of the allegations in the subsequent court filings were brought to the University’s attention in 2019, Peart wrote. Still, she added, Yale has been working to resolve the issues that the plaintiffs have raised.
The women allege that Fontes, their supervisor, sexually harassed them with inappropriate comments and forcibly kissed and touched some of them. Additionally, they claim that Fontes retaliated against them for speaking out. The judge dismissed one claim of retaliation, but opted to uphold the women’s other accusations of assault and battery as well as additional claims of invasion of privacy — allowing them to move forward with their accusations against Fontes, YNHH and the University.
In the suit, one plaintiff said she told Roberta Hines, the chair of the Anesthesiology Department, that Fontes had touched and massaged her without her consent. The plaintiff claims that Hines brushed aside Fontes’ behavior by saying, “Boys will be boys.” The chair did not respond to a request for comment.
Fontes, who denies the allegations, called the case “a successful attempt to derail [his] chance of becoming the chair of the department.” Fontes detailed specific objections to the situations the women described, saying that the plaintiffs coordinated the allegations. He added that the six women are all friends and came together to harm his professional prospects. Additionally, he told the News that the women were discriminating against him because he is Black.
Rahman said the plaintiffs “dispute there is any conspiracy” and that many of them did not know about the others until after the complaints had been made. He also emphasized that there are witnesses who can corroborate the plaintiffs’ allegations.
YNHH spokesperson Mark D’Antonio wrote in an email to the News that once aware of the charges, YNHH immediately asked Fontes to “voluntarily surrender [medical staff] privileges” at the hospital and “refrain from contact, oversight or influence in the employment of any individuals at YNHH.” According to D’Antonio, Fontes has not worked at YNHH since December 2019. Fontes explained that he went on leave then after failed back surgeries and chronic pain. It was not related to the allegations against him, he said.
“We are disappointed in the ruling and will continue to vigorously defend our position,” D’Antonio wrote in the email.
In an interview with the News, Fontes said that the University first approached him about the allegations in December 2019. Members of the Provost’s Office presented “vague” information to Fontes and Hines that people had raised concerns about him, he said — and about a week later, he received more exact details about the complaints and their contents.
At the end of January 2020, Hines and former Medical School Dean Robert Alpern alerted Fontes that his leadership roles would be rescinded, he said. Fontes was previously the cardiac anesthesia fellowship director, division chief of cardiac anesthesiology and director of clinical research. Fontes said that the roles were stripped “without due process” and added that he had not been interviewed for any investigation. He was aware that an investigation was underway.
He added that Pat Noonan, a lawyer who was representing the University, approached him first in the summer of 2020 and said Yale would pay Fontes’ legal fees or provide him with legal support if he resigned from his role as a Yale professor and agreed in writing not to sue the University. In December 2020 and January 2021, Fontes’ lawyers spoke with a lawyer representing the University.
Peart declined to comment on this legal arrangement.
Fontes said that in November 2020, he filed a discrimination complaint against the hospital, the University and his department chair on the basis of race, gender and disability in connection to chronic back pain that he describes as incapacitating. Two months before, the hospital informed him that his privileges of practicing medicine at YNHH would be terminated because of his disability status, Fontes claimed in an interview with the News.
YNHH declined to comment on the complaint.
“It is an extremely frustrating and hopeless existence for me as a Black man in America being falsely accused of sexual harassment and being innocent and hav[ing] to live, deal with the career sabotage and the railing done against me and having my name all over Google as a sexual harasser, which is not true and there doesn’t seem to be any ending to this,” Fontes said.
The case was filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Connecticut.
Rose Horowitch | firstname.lastname@example.org
Beatriz Horta | email@example.com