University Found Responsible for Bias on an Internship

Appeals court upholds verdict that Wayne State must pay $850,000 to former student whose pregnancy was subject of inappropriate criticism by supervisor.

March 9, 2016

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has affirmed a jury finding that Wayne State University failed to respond to pregnancy-based discrimination against one of its students. For failing to do so, Wayne State must pay $850,000.

The case illustrates that universities that place students in required internship programs are covered by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 even when the initial alleged discrimination is by an internship provider -- in this case the Salvation Army -- that is not covered by Title IX.

Tina Varlesi, the former student, had been earning good grades in a master's program in social work when she was assigned to an internship at the Salvation Army -- and when she failed at the internship, her ability to graduate was effectively blocked.

Testimony in the trial established that Varlesi's Salvation Army supervisor criticized her pregnancy, telling her not to rub her belly and to wear looser clothes because men in Salvation Army programs were "turned on by her pregnancy." The supervisor also questioned Varlesi's marital status (she was not married) and told others that Varlesi "had relations with someone" and that men in the program could "look but they cannot touch."

The Salvation Army is not covered by Title IX, but the findings against Wayne State are based on how it responded to Varlesi's complaints about how she was treated at the internship.

First, the university did not offer assistance when she raised concerns about what she was being told to do, and the court found that the university even encouraged her to follow some of her supervisor's advice.

Second and perhaps most important, the appeals court decision describes what happened when Varlesi appealed the failing grade she received on the internship to Wayne State, again citing the way her supervisor repeatedly commented on her pregnancy in discriminatory ways. Wayne State told Varlesi that it had investigated and rejected those charges. But as the appeals court noted, the social work dean admitted in the court proceedings that no such investigation ever took place.

Wayne State appealed the jury verdict -- and the size of the award -- on a range of issues. The appeals court unanimously rejected every argument offered by the university.

Matt Lockwood, a spokesman for the university, told The Detroit Free Press that Wayne State was disappointed with the appeals court's decision and was reviewing it.

Deborah Gordon, Varlesi's lawyer, told the newspaper that the decision reflected Wayne State's "complete arrogance" on how it responded to Varlesi. "They pay a lot of lip service to the law and not tolerating any discrimination, but at the end of the day, it's hollow. Now the taxpayers have to foot the bill."


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