Researcher Denied Immunity in Harassment Case

October 4, 2016

A federal court has upheld an earlier court decision denying a researcher qualified immunity in a former student’s sexual harassment case against him and the University of Minnesota. The plaintiff, Stephanie Jenkins, was a Ph.D. candidate in natural resources and wildlife management at the university, and she's been public about her case. She alleges that starting in 2011 during a research trip to the Alaskan wilderness, Ted Swem -- then a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Fairbanks assigned as her mentor for field research -- began to sexually harass her, repeatedly telling her, for instance, that he wanted to kiss her and date her, and taking a picture of her buttocks and calling it “scenery.” He allegedly encouraged her to drink alcohol at night and joked about sharing a tent.

Jenkins repeatedly denied his advances, according to the suit. Jenkins was assigned a shared office with Swem back on campus that fall at Minnesota, where he was working on a one-year research agreement. He allegedly continued to seek a relationship with Jenkins but refrained from sexual comments. Jenkins still tried to avoid being alone with Swem, according to the suit, working elsewhere. She eventually told her academic adviser about the alleged harassment and was transferred to a different office, though it wasn’t fully usable for some time, according to the suit.

In early 2012 Jenkins resigned from the university and has since been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The university has argued that Swem was not one of its employees at the time of the alleged harassment, while Swem has argued that he, as a federal actor, should not be personally liable in legal proceedings.

A panel of judges in a U.S. District Court in a decision released Monday reaffirmed an earlier ruling that Swem was not entitled to such immunity. “Although disputes of facts remain, when the facts relied on by the District Court are considered in the light most favorable to Jenkins, she sufficiently showed that Swem’s conduct toward her was unwelcome harassment, and that it was serious enough to alter a term or condition of her employment,” the decision says. “She also showed that Swem’s conduct violated a clearly established right [not to be sexually harassed], based on the particular facts of this case.” Swem could not immediately be reached for comment.

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