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Content warning: This article contains references to sexual misconduct.

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A Connecticut federal court ruled in favor of Yale professor Michael Simons last week, allowing him to move to trial on his claim that Yale, after finding him guilty of sexual harassment, punished him unfairly on the basis of his gender in an effort to appease media critics and campus supporters of the #MeToo movement.

Simons was found guilty of sexual harassment in 2013 and as punishment was suspended as Chief of Cardiology at the School of Medicine. He alleges that after this initial punishment, the University illegally took a series of additional, unwarranted punishments against him in response to public criticism, most notably when Simons was given and then asked to resign from an endowed professorship in 2018, as the #MeToo movement was gaining national attention. 

Although Yale filed a motion for summary judgment on Simons’ complaint, the court denied the motion with respect to two counts of gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; both counts will move forward to jury trial.

“Plaintiff was adjudged guilty of committing sexual harassment, he was punished, he executed his punishment without further violations, and then years after the completion of his punishment, he was again sanctioned for the same behavior, but this time without any process at all,” U.S. District Judge Omar Williams wrote in his decision. “There is also no dispute that the University was the subject of news reports criticizing its decision to reward a sexual harasser with an endowed chair.”

Simons’ lawyer, Norm Pattis, wrote to the News that he was “very much” pleased with the court’s ruling.

“Yale’s Title IX process is deeply flawed,” he wrote. “The university should look more carefully before leaping into the arms of screaming harpies again.”

Williams’ ruling was in response to Yale’s motion for a summary judgment on the case, which aimed to have the court rule without a trial. Judge Williams’ recent decision was in response to that motion, and it is not a finding of liability but instead means that the case must go before a jury for a verdict.

“Yale has an unwavering commitment to uphold standards of conduct essential to the maintenance of a safe, respectful, and inclusive campus,” wrote Yale’s spokesperson on behalf of the University. “These standards apply to all students, faculty, and staff, regardless of race or gender, and we will continue to defend this case vigorously.”

Simons found guilty of sexual harassment, lost endowed professorship

Simons was initially reported to the University in 2013 by Annarita Di Lorenzo, who was at the time a younger postdoctoral associate. Di Lorenzo alleged that in February 2010, Simons penned her a handwritten letter in Italian expressing his affection for her. Despite Di Lorenzo having made her lack of interest clear, Simons continued to send Di Lorenzo emails and letters, some with sexually suggestive language.

In 2013, Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct found Professor Michael Simons guilty of sexual harassment. Simons was then suspended — rather than removed — as chief of cardiology at the School of Medicine at the recommendation of former University provost Ben Polak. 

After that decision, in October 2014, the New York Times obtained leaked documents of the case and interviewed 18 faculty members who expressed anger at its handling. A week after the Times contacted Yale, the University announced that Simons would be removed from the position entirely. Then, on Nov. 14, 2014, the New York Times reported that Yale had also removed Simons as director of its Cardiovascular Research Center. 

Simons alleges that these two additional actions were taken in response to public reaction to the stories published by the New York Times and other outlets. The University disputes this claim, arguing that both subsequent punishments resulted from the findings of an internal, “360 review” of Simons’ job performance.

Simons, a tenured professor, continued to work at Yale in his position as Robert W. Berliner Professor of Medicine, a $500,000 dollar-a-year endowed professorship sponsored by the family of Robert Berliner. 

In the spring of 2018, then-Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern asked Simons to relinquish the Berliner professorship and switch to a different endowed chair instead. According to Simons’ complaint, this came after “one or more persons … sympathetic to the #MeToo movement” contacted the Berliner family encouraging them to demand that the University remove Simons from the professorship. Then, the complaint alleges, “fearing a backlash from the #MeToo activists and hoping to placate them,” President Peter Salovey and the Yale administration “began exploring” how to remove Simons from the chair. 

On June 22, 2018, Salovey sent Simons a letter confirming his appointment to a different endowed chair, the Waldemar Von Zedwitz Professor of Cardiology, which also carried a value of $500,000 dollars a year. 

Following this decision, School of Medicine faculty members, students and alumni penned an open letter to University President Peter Salovey expressing “disgust and disappointment” with this decision. Alpern also met with various groups opposed to Simons’ appointment, such as the School of Medicine’s Committee on the Status of Women in Medicine.

On Sept. 20, 2018, Alpern notified Simons that he had until noon the following day to resign from his position as Waldemar Von Zedwitz Professor of Cardiology. According to Simons’ lawsuit filing, Alpern also told Simons that the University was “concerned” with the public criticism directed at them.

Complaint filed in 2019

On Oct. 1, 2019, Simons and his lawyer, Norm Pattis, filed a lawsuit against Yale, Salovey and Alpern on seven counts: breach of contract, breach of the implied warranty of fair dealing, wrongful discharge, negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of privacy, and discrimination on the basis of gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. 

In 2020, a court granted Yale’s motion to dismiss three of these counts: wrongful discharge, negligent infliction of emotional distress and breach of privacy. Following the decision, Yale moved for a summary judgement on all remaining counts.

Judge Williams, in his ruling, first granted the motion with respect to counts of breach of contract and breach of the implied warranty of fair dealing. 

Regarding the counts of discrimination, Judge Williams elected to deny the University’s motion, moving both claims to trial in front of a jury. 

Gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and Title IX

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. In count six of the suit — alleged gender discrimination in violation of Title VII — Simons argues that Yale punished him multiple times for the same conduct, which it has allegedly never done to a non-male employee.

Yale, however, asserts that this claim is unsupported by direct or circumstantial evidence.

Judge Williams, in his ruling, stated that there is no direct evidence of discrimination actionable under Title VII.

“Although Defendant Alpern did testify that the University’s treatment of Plaintiff stemmed from a desire to address negative sentiment within the YSM community, he did not testify that the University adopted a clear policy of dealing with men more severely than others,” Williams wrote. “Nor did he testify that community sentiment was sexist against men.”

However, Williams ruled that there is enough circumstantial evidence to consider Simons’ case. He found that there was enough evidence to question whether Yale’s explanation for removing the professorship was pretextual, meaning it could be a cover-up for discrimination. 

According to the court filing, its evidence comes primarily from procedural irregularities in Yale’s handling of Simons’ case, which deviate from Yale’s stated policy on sexual harassment. Yale’s policy does not “explicitly” bar successive punishment for one offense but does “strongly” discourage such disciplinary measures, “particularly in asserting that the entire disciplinary process generally should take about 60 days,” per the filing. The policy also states that the accused has an opportunity to object to proposed sanctions. 

“Plaintiff was not given an opportunity to present any argument in opposition to the sanction,” Williams wrote, referring to Simons’ immediate removal from the Von Zedwitz professorship.

Neither these procedural flaws, nor the negative media coverage, can be disputed, according to Williams. Thus, there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find evidence of gender bias.

Simons also alleges that Yale acted in violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. His basis for this claim is the same as it is for the alleged violation of Title VII — that Yale successively punished him for sexual misconduct without due process. 

Yale argued that this Title IX discrimination claim was duplicative of the Title VII claim, but the court held otherwise. Williams wrote that Title IX applies to educational contexts with outlined compliance requirements, while Title VII focuses more broadly on employment discrimination. 

A trial date has not yet been set. 

Ben Raab covers faculty and academics at Yale and writes about the Yale men's basketball team. Originally from New York City, Ben is a sophomore in Pierson college pursuing a double major in history and political science.