A decision made this week may have put some finality on the first sexual harassment case against a higher educational facility in the state of Michigan. Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Melinda Morris upheld an April verdict in a lawsuit against the University in which former Music student Maureen Johnson was awarded $250,000.
Johnson alleged visiting Prof. Pier Calabria made several sexual advances and comments toward her regarding her appearance and clothes during the fall of 1997. Johnson played the oboe in the University Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Calabria.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing this sexy leopard shirt,” Calabria allegedly said to Johnson one day at her work-study job, according to a brief prepared by Johnson’s attorney, Miranda Massie.
Johnson brought her complaints to University officials, but she said they proved to be unhelpful in her situation.
After finding out that former Music School Dean Paul Boylan reneged on his alleged promise to terminate Calabria’s contract at the end of the school year, Johnson withdrew from the University in 1998.
She filed the lawsuit against the University and Boylan in 1999 on claims of sexual harassment, retaliation, discrimination and race discrimination.
Last month, the University filed a motion asking the jury to overturn the verdict or grant a new trial. It claimed Johnson’s attorneys had provided insufficient evidence and failed to release certain medical records regarding a visit to a marital counselor.
“The evidence submitted at trial is insufficient as a matter of law to support the jury’s verdict,” University attorneys wrote in a brief.
“Moreover, Plaintiff is barred from recovering emotional distress damages because she prevented discovery regarding her medical condition.”
But Massie said last month that almost all records were turned over by trial. The only documents not disclosed to University attorneys were notes from Johnson and her husband, or solely her husband, in meeting with the marital counselor. Massie said she thought they were irrelevant to the case.
“They were frantically looking for an excuse to undermine our case,” she said.
Massie yesterday refused to comment on Wednesday’s decision.
University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said last night she was unaware if the University would appeal the verdict.
A plaintiff’s motion was also discussed Wednesday regarding an award of more than $200,000 in attorney’s fees and costs to Johnson. Massie said through national and state civil rights laws, such discrimination and harassment claims are regarded as “favored.” While in state cases, the fees are discretionary, most judges award them to plaintiffs, in order to encourage such suits.
“We want victims of unlawful discrimination to come forward,” Massie said last month. “Without the attorneys’ fees, you could never have a student come forward.”
Morris took the claim under advisement yesterday. Morris’ judicial coordinator, Valerie Scrivener, said it would be at least a month before Morris would make a decision on the motion, considering her previous motions and decisions in the courtroom.
“They’re done on a first-come first-serve basis,” Scrivener said.