After more than five years of legal motions and delays, a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the University by former Music graduate student Maureen Johnson will be ruled on today in the state Court of Appeals.
The University is appealing a verdict that awarded $250,000 to Johnson for damages resulting from alleged sexual harassment by former visiting Music Prof. Pier Calabria. Today’s verdict will be the final say in the case, unless either party attempts to take the case to the state Supreme Court.
Johnson said when she was a student in Calabria’s orchestra in 1997 he repeatedly made advances and offensive remarks toward her and other students. While University officials do not deny that Johnson was harrased, they say they took immediate action to stop it. Johnson also alleges that the University did not allow her to switch into a different orchestra, but the University claims it took sufficient actions to allow her to stay in the music program.
According to a brief issued by Johnson’s attorney, Miranda Massie, the professor often made sexually invasive remarks to Johnson in rehearsal and in private. Massie said the University warned Calabria about his behavior and later bought out his contract, but that it did not adequately respond to the harassment.
According to the brief, Calabria said one day to Johnson and her oboe section during rehearsal, “It’s a very sexual piece, I don’t feel you are seducing me, you should be seducing me.”
Outside of rehearsal, Johnson claims that Calabria harassed her in the hallway and in the Ensembles Library where she worked. She claimed that he stared at her breasts and repeatedly asked her out to dinner and to drink wine with him.
“He would often put his arm around me and lean in close to my face, within an inch of my face,” Johnson said. “When he was putting his arm around me, those were the times that he was asking me out on dates sometimes.”
When Johnson refused Calabria’s advances, she claims that Calabria retaliated against her, demoting her from her position as a first-chair oboist.
In mid-November of 1997, Johnson and two other students filed complaints against Calabria. Massie said the University didn’t take these complaints seriously.
“The University had ample evidence that Calabria regarded his orchestra as a harem,” Massie said. “In response to all of this information, (the University) threatened him with a letter of warning, and this letter was never even put in his file.”
But University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the University adequately responded to Johnson’s complaint. She said Calabria was given a serious warning concerning his inappropriate behavior by Associate Dean Willis Patterson. Peterson said after the warning Johnson admited that Calabria no longer harassed her.
“We’re not denying that Johnson was sexually harassed,” said Peterson. “Clearly Calabria’s behavior constituted harassment. We’re appealing the case because we took immediate action to stop it. The University takes sexual harassment very seriously and we responded in a way that the law requires.”
Massie, however, said University officials didn’t take serious action against Calabria until they heard that Johnson’s mother was considering litigation — only then did they buy out his contract, she said.
“Calabria was given a year’s paid vacation and Marueen (Johnson) was driven out of the University of Michigan’s graduate program. If that’s an adequate response to a sexual harassment complaint, the law’s protections mean nothing,” Massie said.
Massie claims the University made it impossible for Johnson to continue studying in the music program because it kept Calabria as a professor for the winter 1998 semester and refused to allow Johnson to switch into a different orchestra.
But Peterson said the University gave Johnson “every opportunity to continue in the program” and let her drop out of Calabria’s orchestra without penalty.
A Washtenaw County jury originally gave the verdict against the University in April 2002. In October 2002, the University asked the judge to overturn the verdict. When Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Melinda Morris upheld the verdict – and increased attorney fees to encourage lawyers to take sexual harassment cases filed by students – the University appealed the case.
State Court of Appeals Chief Judge William Whitbeck will deliver today’s ruling in Grand Rapids.