There are some employment cases that come in where our employment law attorneys collectively shake our head and know that some attorney is charging a client hourly to bring a frivolous claim. One of those cases was recently decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Verdu v. The Trustees of Princeton University, No. 20-1724, 2022 WL 4482457, at *1 (3d Cir. Sept. 27, 2022).
Sergio Verdu was employed as a tenured professor in the electrical-engineering department at Princeton University for 35 years. In April 2017, Yeohee Im, a graduate student at Princeton, reported Verdu for sexual harassment. During the investigation, Verdu denied engaging in any sexual misconduct during his employment at Princeton. Nonetheless, the employer’s investigation concluded a violation of Princeton’s sexual-misconduct policy occurred and placed Verdu on a one-year probation.
Im, unhappy that her sexual harasser was only slapped on the wrist, started a campaign to get Verdu fired. As part of this public push, information was provided to Princeton that Verdu had engaged in a sexual relationship with a graduate student whose dissertation was being evaluated by Verdu. As part of the second investigation, Verdu admitted to this improper sexual relationship with a subordinate student, which implicitly resulted in Verdu admitting that he lied during the first investigation. Having engaged in at least two acts of sexual misconduct and lied during the investigation into his sexual harassment, Princeton fired Verdu.
And Verdu sued Princeton for wrongful termination based on gender discrimination. Specifically, he argued that Princeton had only investigated him because “generalized archaic stereotypes about the sexes” and public pressure to address female students being sexually harassed lead to an erroneous outcome. Well, just because the vast majority of sexual harassment is perpetrated by men doesn’t mean that men are persecuted when they are investigated for that conduct. And the desire to protect female students from sexual predators is not gender discrimination favoring females.
More importantly, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit cut Verdu off in one sentence: “Verdu’s admission of guilt undercuts the strength of his allegations that Princeton investigated him because of his sex.” Id. at *3.
Still not giving up, Verdu argued that Princeton engaged in disparate treatment gender discrimination because it treated the female graduate student that reported the sexual harassment more favorably than him during the first investigation. (Best Law Read: What Is Disparate Treatment?; Can Unequal Progressive Discipline Prove Discrimination?). While this argument is absurd on its face, let’s look at it from a legal perspective. To prove disparate treatment, an employee must show that employer treats other similarly situated employees less favorably than others because of their race/color, religion, gender, LGBTQ+ status, national origin, or disability.
The District Court found that Verdu failed to allege that he received different treatment by Princeton than a similarly situated female. He never identifies a female professor at Princeton as a comparator; at most, his complaint alleges that Im—a graduate student and his accuser—is a valid comparator. Although a plaintiff need not show an exact match between himself and the comparator, he must show a sufficient similarity. Verdu, a professor, and Im, a graduate student, hold unquestionably different roles and levels of authority at Princeton. Verdu has not alleged enough commonalities to show that they are sufficiently alike to be considered valid comparators.
Id. at *5(footnotes omitted)..
Still throwing crap against the wall, Verdu argued that Princeton engaged in a gender-based hostile work environment against him because being investigated due to public pressure cause him stress, anxiety, and elevated blood pressure. (Best Law Read: Not All Hostile Work Environments Are Actionable). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Verdu could not prove a key element of a hostile work environment claim – that it was based on his gender:
If anything, Verdu alleges that Im launched her pressure campaign because she felt “[d]issatisfied with [the] sanction” of Verdu. Additionally, his complaint makes much of Im’s purported relationship with Professor Cuff. According to Verdu, Cuff “held a grudge against” him because Cuff blamed Verdu for his failure to obtain tenure. Based on Im allegedly “[h]aving developed a close relationship with Cuff,” she purportedly filed her grievances against Verdu based on Cuff’s alleged encouragement. Those allegations do not relate to sex discrimination; instead, they relate to a purported feud between Cuff and Im, on one hand, and Verdu, on the other. That is not enough to allege a plausible hostile-work-environment claim based on sex discrimination.
Id. at *5 (footnotes omitted).
To me this was a frivolous claim from the start that no attorney should have been willing to pursue. An employee engaged in sexual misconduct with a subordinate. He was fired for his actions and not his gender. If a female professor had sex with a subordinate student, she should be fired as well. The frivolity of bringing this claim gets only worse when you consider that the attorney agreed to appeal the dismissal of the case to a federal court of appeals.
This is why paying employment attorneys on an hourly basis is dangerous. The attorney wins and gets paid the longer the case goes regardless of whether there is any merit or chance of recovery for the employee. This is why at Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, our employee’s rights attorneys only take cases on a contingency fee basis, which means that not only do we get paid only when our clients do, but it also means that our interests are always aligned with our clients. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical).
How do I find out if I have a sexual harassment claim?
Best Sex Harassment Lawyer Answer: Sexual harassment is unlawful under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and similar state laws. If you are being sexually harassed by your supervisor or manager; or if you are working in a sexually charged or hostile working environment, you should not wait to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation. At The Spitz Law Firm, you will meet with a sexual harassment lawyer/hostile work environment attorney to find out what your legal rights are and the best way to protect them.
The sexual harassment materials available at the top of this page and at this gender discrimination, wrongful termination, and sex harassment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. If you are still asking “what should I do if my boss tell me I have to have sex with him to keep my job”, “I’m being sexually harassed at work” “my supervisor asked me to give him a blow job”, “my supervisor keeps rubbing against me,” “I’ve been wrongfully terminated,” or “how do I sue for sex harassment?”, your best course is to contact an experienced sexual harassment attorney/hostile work environment lawyer to obtain advice with respect to sexual harassment/hostile work environment questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at the top of this page or through this employment law website are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of The Spitz Law Firm, Brian Spitz, or any individual attorney.