Thursday, May 29, 2008

Spotlight on Summa v. Hofstra University

A while ago, we briefly noted an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit against Hofstra University. We had only limited details to offer at that time, but we have since received a copy of the complaint filed by plaintiff Lauren Summa (thanks, reader!). We can now provide a more information about Summa's side of the story.

In 2006, Summa was hired as a student manager of the Hofstra University football team for a one year period that would include the primary fall season and the secondary spring season. Accompanying the team to away games, she was subjected to "relentless sexual harassment" by players on every bus trip. Players teased her for having a relationship with another player, including by creating a mocking webpage on that Summa describes as "intentionally demeaning and sexist, implying that [she] was beastly, overweight, hypersexual, and overbearing." They suggested that she and her boyfriend have sex on the bus and made other offensive comments. On one trip, they barricaded her in the bathroom. On another trip, the coaches showed a movie that contained graphic sex scenes. This prompted players to jeer at Summa, and a particular scene depicting sex between a black man and a white women promoted one player to suggest to Summa that all "white women" like her want "black dicks." Summa, crying, asked the assistant coach to turn off the movie and when he did, players objected chanting "we want boobies" and ridiculed Summa even more.

Summa reported the movie incident to Coach Cohen (as she had the facebook incident). Cohen was irritated with Summa for complaining and tried to talk her out of reporting the incident to Campus Safety, arguing that it would bring negative attention to the football team. Summa followed through on her plan to report the incident, and was ultimately put in touch with the university's Equal Employment Officer, Maureen Murphy. Murphy said that she would arrange sensitivity training for the football team, but this did not happen. One of Summa's primary tormenters, Eric Taylor, was kicked off the team for reasons unrelated to harassment. Yet Taylor continued to torment Summa throughout the winter, accusing her of causing his dismissal from the team.

At the beginning of the spring season, Summa reported to work, only to find that Coach Cohen had hired a replacement for her. He told her that he presumed she was not interested in continuing with the position. Summa alleges that this presumption, contrary to custom and to her understanding with Cohen that she would work the whole year, was retaliation for complaining about harassment. The retaliation continued when Summa's offer to work for the University Relations Office was rescinded soon after Summa filed a complaint about the football incident with the state division of human rights.

Summa filed suit in federal district court, alleging that both the underlying harassment and the retaliation she experienced for reporting it violate both Title VII, Title IX, and New York's Human Rights Law. She seeks damages and an injunction against Hofstra's similar conduct in the future.

While we don't know if Hofstra will seek dismissal, attempt to settle, or proceed to trial, it should be factoring in the plaintiff-favoring trend in recently sexual harassment decisions involving college athletics -- including this case against the University of Colorado, this case against the University of North Carolina, and this case against the University of Washington, as well as the big jury verdicts in the retaliation cases against the athletic department at Fresno State.