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$500,000 Harassment Verdict Against a President

May 2, 2007

A federal court jury concluded last week that the president of Voorhees College had sexually harassed a former female professor and that college officials "acted with malice or with reckless indifference" toward her. The jury awarded Moreen B. Joseph a total of $500,000 in punitive and compensatory damages, a judgment that should be final within days.

Joseph, who began work as a researcher in a National Institutes of Health-supported Center of Excellence on the Voorhees campus in 2002, said in her 2004 lawsuit that she had been subjected to "lewd, gross and suggestive language of a sexual nature and unwanted touching" over several months in 2002 and 2003 by Lee M. Monroe, president of the South Carolina private college. Monroe, Joseph charged, "repeatedly made unwelcome sexual advances," and "suggested that if she received his sexual advances favorably she that would continue to prosper as an employee of the college, and implied that if she did not go along with his advances that she would regret that decision."

Joseph's complaint contended that she had "consistently and adamantly rejected" Monroe's advances, and that retaliation resulted in the "loss of her position," and her $70,000 annual salary, in 2003. She also alleged that she had reported the alleged sexual harassment to the college's human resources office and that the president's conduct had been "known to the Board of Trustees." She sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging discrimination based on her gender.

Lawyers for Voorhees challenged all of Joseph's claims in court.

The college denied that Monroe had engaged in sexual harassment, accused Joseph of failing to follow Voorhees's policies on reporting "claimed sexual misconduct," and contended that she was not "terminated or constructively discharged" by the college. "Rather, the plaintiff voluntarily quit and terminated her employment with Voorhees College."

After a four-day trial, the jury found in Joseph's favor on all but her charge that she had suffered assault and battery at the hands of Monroe. The jury concluded that Joseph had been "sexually harassed" by Monroe and had "proved the elements of her hostile work environment claim," resulting in $100,000 in compenasatory damages. The jury also found that Joseph had proven that Voorhees "acted with malice or reckless indifference to her federally protected rights," ordering $400,000 in punitive damages. The judge in the case must make a handful of procedural rulings before the verdict is final, but those rulings are not expected to alter the outcome.

Joseph, who continues to carry out her research work on health disparities in nutrition and obesity at Clemson University, Voorhees's partner on the Center of Excellence, said in an interview Tuesday that her case was one of "lack of accountability and misuse of power."

Monroe could not be reached for comment about the jury's verdict. Don Fowler, a trustee at Voorhees, issued a statement after the verdict, saying: “The proceeding [Thursday] was disappointing but there are additional steps before the final determination is made in respect to this proceeding. We continue to have faith and confidence in Dr. Monroe, and I will not have any other comment until the court has concluded all of the steps in this process.”

 

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