A judge’s decision may help ensure that the first sexual harassment case against an institution of higher education to be heard in Michigan is not the only such lawsuit to make it into the court system.
Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Melinda Morris last week ordered that the University must pay greater attorney fees to Maureen Johnson than her lawyers requested. Morris increased the fees by nearly $37,000 to encourage attorneys to take on cases involving the sexual harassment of students.
Johnson, a former Music School student who said she was sexually harassed by former visiting Music Prof. Pier Calabria, won her lawsuit against the University in April.
Johnson alleged that Calabria repeatedly made comments to her that made her uncomfortable. She complained to University officials but eventually withdrew from the University after Music School Dean Paul Boylan failed to terminate Calabria’s contract at the end of that school year.
The original lawsuit was filed in 1999 and heard in April 2002. The motion to award attorney fees and costs was filed in November 2002. In total, the University is now expected to pay almost $200,000 in attorneys’ fees and legal costs for the plaintiffs, as well as the $250,000 in damages awarded to Johnson in April.
The attorney fees for the plaintiffs were originally calculated at $147,725. The number was based on the hourly rates worked by Johnson’s attorneys, Miranda Massie and George Washington. According to Morris’s ruling, Massie worked a total of 598.2 hours on the case at an hourly rate of $200, while Washington spent 85.3 hours on the case at $250 per hour.
But the plaintiff sought to increase that amount based on the “difficulty of finding legal representation in a case such as hers, where she could not have funded the litigation with only her own resources, the litigation was complex and time-consuming and the outcome uncertain, without the possibility of an enhanced fee reward,” Morris wrote.
Morris ruled that the amount should be increased in order to send a message to lawyers that cases such as Johnson’s are less risky and more financially lucrative.
Massie said many lawyers do not tackle sexual harassment cases involving students because students do not make a salary and cannot sue for loss of wages, only emotional damages.
“The Court also agrees with the plaintiff that a financial incentive is necessary to encourage good attorneys to undertake cases such as this, which, as the plaintiff contends, is fact-intensive and involve complex, relatively new legal issues,” the opinion stated.
Morris increased the amount by 1.25 percent, to $184,656.25.
Spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the University believes the decision to increase fees was in error. The University is planning to appeal both the original verdict and the decision regarding attorney’s fees.
But Massie said she believes an appeal will send a negative message to those concerned about the University’s willingness to respond to sexual harassment complaints.
“They’re sending a message of defensiveness and refusal to change if they appeal,” Massie said.
“Sexual harassment and other expressions of sexism mean women aren’t given the same opportunity to flourish and learn as their male counterparts,” she added. “This case was a step toward equality for women on campus.”
But Peterson said the purpose of appealing the decision is not to discourage sexual harassment complaints, but to encourage them to go through University channels.
“Sexual harassment is unacceptable,” Peterson said. “But we’d rather solve issues of sexual harassment before it gets to the litigation level. … If it gets to the litigation level, that means the first avenues have not been successful.”
– Daily Staff Reporter Tomislav Ladika contributed to this report.