A landmark legal victory for a former Music School student could
be diminished if the University gets its way. Attorneys for the
former student, Maureen Johnson filed a brief this week, expected
to culminate at another hearing in eight to 10 months.

Johnson sued the University in 1999 on charges of sexual
harassment, retaliation, discrimination and race discrimination. In
April 2002, a Washtenaw County jury awarded Johnson $250,000. In
November, Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Melinda Morris
upheld the jury’s verdict after the University requested
reconsideration. University attorneys officially appealed to the
Michigan Court of Appeals in August.

Johnson entered the Music School in Fall 1997, and participated
in the University Philharmonia Orchestra, directed by former
visiting Music School Prof. Pier Calabria. Johnson alleged that
Calabria made several demeaning remarks to her, including comments
regarding her clothes.

After Johnson complained, he demoted her from her first-chair
oboe position and repeatedly humiliated in her in front of other
students, Johnson said. After she protested to University
officials, she said they did not assist her in any way and broke
several promises, including allowing Calabria to continue teaching.
Johnson withdrew from the University in the middle of 1998 and
filed suit a year later.

In its brief to the Court of Appeals, the University claimed
that Johnson failed to reveal past medical history, including a
session with a therapist after being raped when she was 14. As a
result, according to precedent, she could not claim emotional
distress damages.

“A defendant facing a claim for emotional distress damages must
be allowed unfettered discovery not only into the existence of any
alleged emotional distress but also into possible alternative
causes of that distress,” University attorneys wrote in the brief.
“In this case, (the) plaintiff initially did not assert the
privilege. Rather, she simply failed to disclose the existence of
medical treaters.”

But Johnson’s attorney. Miranda Massie, said Johnson had simply
forgotton about that particular therapist because she only went a
few times and the incident had occurred 10 years earlier.

“They tried to make that into her committing perjury,” Massie
said of the University’s attorneys.

The University also made its original claims that Johnson could
not show proper evidence of a hostile situation.

“While (the) plaintiff alleged that Calabria made sexually
suggestive comments in orchestra rehearsals, these comments were
made to the group, and not directed at (the plaintiff),” the brief
stated.

But Massie said Calabria made a number of sexual remarks and
advances toward Johnson.

“The only way they can ignore that is to totally distort the
record,” Massie said. “It’s sending a message to the campus that it
won’t change its policies towards sexual harassment,”

The University also dispelled Johnson’s argument that they
responded inadequately to her case.

“The University doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment, we think it
has no place in our community,” University spokeswoman Julie
Peterson said. “I think the University took very strong
action.”

But Massie said the University made it impossible for Johnson to
stay in school by retaining Calabria for the winter 1998 semester
and refusing to let her switch orchestras.

“The University’s response was starkly unreasonable … the
defendant made only a patently inadequate intervention with
Calabria himself: He was threatened with a letter of reprimand that
was never written,” Massie wrote in a brief, responding to the
University’s appeal. The defendant she referred to was former Music
School Dean Paul Boylan.

The appeal hearing will be held in front of a three-judge panel
next year. Currently, 20 out of the 28 judges on the court are
appointees of former Republican Gov. John Engler. But Massie said
she remains unconcerned in spite of the court’s conservative
nature.

“I’m very confident about it,” Massie said. “They really don’t
have anything to say that constitutes a real challenge to what the
jury found.”

Massie added that Johnson intends to appeal to the Michigan
Supreme Court if she loses. “It is important for women in
campuses,” Massie said. “There really haven’t been many legal cases
challenging sexual harassment in higher education.”

Peterson said it is too early to comment on how the decision
will play out and whether they would continue to appeal if they
lose again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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