Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Professor Settles Discrimination Case Against Penn State

Penn State and a former assistant professor have reached a settlement to terminate the professor's lawsuit alleging that she was not promoted due to discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation. The plaintiff, Constance Matthews, had applied for promotion and tenure in 2004, after serving as an assistant professor in the College of Education since 1998. But the promotion and tenure committee denied her application, apparently due to concerns with her research, which focused on lesbian and gay issues. Matthews sued, arguing that the denial was motivated by discrimination because she deserved tenure on the basis of the quality of her research and service to the university.

Today it's reported that Matthews will drop her suit against Penn State. However, the terms of the agreement are sealed, and neither side is sharing any information.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it's not the first time we've blogged about a confidential settlement in a lawsuit raising sexual orientation discrimination claims against Penn State. Former basketball player Jennifer Harris's case, which challenged her dismissal from the team on the basis of her sexual orientation, ended similarly. In fact, Matthews's own lawyers recognized that Harris's case might help them establish a pattern of discrimination at the university level, and were able to convince a judge to let them subpoena materials about that case notwithstanding the confidentiality agreement between Harris and Penn State.

Cases often settle before a judge or jury can examine the facts, and that sometimes parties can negotiate more favorable settlements in exchange for agreeing to keep the terms confidential. But I still can't shake the feeling that something is amiss in the Happy Valley and the disappointment in another missed opportunity to expose possible discriminatory practices.

Update 8/26: this post was amended to correct an error that was brought to my attention by a reader. I had posted that Matthews's lawyers were unsuccessful (referring to this prior post) in their efforts to expose discovery materials from the Harris case, when in fact, they did prevail in a motion for reconsideration. I regret the error, especially in light of my co-blogger's post about the judge's reversal of his initial decision!) The materials Matthews's lawyers were able to subpoena from Portland and Penn State remain confidential, so it is impossible to speculate on the extent to which they factored in to the settlement negotiations between Matthews and the university.