The Michigan Court of Appeals last month overturned a lower court ruling in favor of former Music student Maureen Johnson, who claimed she was sexually harassed by former visiting Prof. Pier Calabria in 1997. The prior decision would have required the University to pay $435,000 to compensate Johnson.
Johnson and her attorney Miranda Massie are reviewing their options for further litigation and have not yet decided whether they will attempt to bring the case to the state Supreme Court.
During the hearings in November, the University successfully argued that it adequately responded to the alleged harassment Johnson faced and is therefore not liable for the damages resulting from Calabria’s misconduct.
“We responded instantly and thoroughly to Ms. Johnson’s complaint,” University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said. “We were pleased that the court of appeals recognized this fact and overturned the lower court’s verdict.”
University attorneys acknowledged Calabria’s inappropriate behavior in court, but maintained that the University’s response to his behavior was sufficient because Johnson did not lodge another complaint against Calabria after she brought his conduct to the attention of University officials.
But Massie argued that the University is liable because it failed to take action that would have allowed Johnson to continue in the University’s graduate music program.
When Johnson played the oboe in Calabria’s orchestra, she said Calabria repeatedly made inappropriate sexual comments and advances toward her in rehearsal and in the Ensembles Library where she worked.
After Johnson filed a complaint, the University retained Calabria for the following semester. As a result, Johnson said she could not continue her education at the University, leading her to withdraw in 1998.
“The University failed to make it possible for Maureen (Johnson) to return to school and continue her studies without fear of being victimized again,” Massie said. “In fact, they did absolutely nothing to ensure that she could continue her graduate studies and that she and other women would be safe from the professor who harassed her. This is obviously an inadequate response and one that puts young women on unequal footing. That’s what the trial court found, that’s what the jury found, and that’s what the court of appeals should have found as well.”
Despite the appellate court’s decision, Massie said Johnson’s case advanced the fight against sexual harassment at the University and on college campuses everywhere.
“Maureen’s case was a significant step in the fight to end sexual harassment on college campuses, which victimizes half of college women,” Massie said. “We have a lot more work to do, but through this case and the campaign surrounding it we have made real progress.”
Massie said that as a result of Johnson’s case several public forums were held on campus that helped expose the problem of sexual harassment at the University. She also said Johnson’s case was partially responsible for the formation of the Sexual Harassment Policy Office, a University department that aimed to prevent and resolve cases of sexual harassment on campus. The department was recently absorbed by the Office of Institutional Equity.