GRAND RAPIDS — In a state Court of Appeals hearing in Grand Rapids yesterday, the University defended its record against former Music student Maureen Johnson’s sexual harassment charge.
The University is appealing a verdict that awarded $250,000 to Johnson in April 2002 for alleged sexual harassment by former visiting Music Prof. Pier Calabria. Attorneys say a ruling may come in 60 to 90 days.
When Johnson played the oboe in Calabria’s orchestra in 1997, she said the professor repeatedly made advances toward her and made lewd comments regarding her appearance. The University acknowledges that Johnson was harassed but says it took appropriate action to stop the harassment.
The University’s attorney, Megan Norris, argued yesterday that the University is not liable for the damages resulting from the sexual harassment because Calabria stopped harassing Johnson after the University intervened. She also said the University isn’t responsible for damages because Johnson withheld admissible medical evidence in the trial.
Despite the University’s claims, Johnson’s attorney, Miranda Massie, said the previous verdict was reasonable and that the University fostered a hostile environment by employing Calabria.
Massie said the University drove Johnson out of the program by retaining Calabria for another semester after Johnson filed a complaint against him, and by preventing Johnson from switching into a new orchestra. As a result, Massie said, the University became a hostile environment for Johnson.
“I couldn’t have gone back to the school and continued my education in that environment,” Johnson said after the hearing.
However, Norris said Calabria’s harassing behavior stopped immediately after Music School Associate Dean Willis Patterson gave him a serious lecture about his inappropriate behavior.
“After talking with Calabria, the associate dean issued a written statement to (Johnson) that said, ‘We believe we’ve addressed the problem, but if more problems occur please come forward.’ (Johnson) never came forward,” Norris said.
Norris said this constitutes evidence that Johnson was no longer subjected to a hostile environment at the University, but Massie said Johnson didn’t have a chance to come forward.
“This is an offensive and preposterous claim,” Massie said after the hearing. “(Johnson) wasn’t harassed by Calabria after she complained solely because his harassment – and the University’s failure to respond to it — drove her out of the school. In other words, he couldn’t harass her because she wasn’t there. He did harass another student the next semester, though.”
Johnson, who currently lives in New York City, said she was disappointed that the University appealed the lower court ruling.
“For them to appeal our case is saying that they don’t believe in a safe and equal environment to study in. It sends a message to women that they can come forward too with harassment claims because they’re not going to be taken seriously,” she said.
However, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said sexual harassment is a major concern for the University. “We take sexual harassment very seriously,” she said. “We hope students come forward with all instances of harassment.”
Norris also claimed that Johnson “refused to release” medical records regarding her sessions with marital counselor Susan Blumberg. According to a brief issued by the defense, a plaintiff cannot recover emotional damages if she doesn’t release admissible medical records. In response, Massie said after the trial, “The defense got everything they needed.” She also said that this was an insignificant detail in the overall case.
The appellate court will deliberate on the arguments given yesterday in Grand Rapids at the state Court of Appeals and issue a verdict at a later date – probably within 60 to 90 days, Norris said.