Aslin et al. v. University of Rochester

We represented ten professors and former graduate students in a lawsuit against the University of Rochester (UR) for violations of Title VII, Title IX, and the New York State Human Rights Law. The case resulted in a $9.4 million settlement, a commitment from the University to overhaul its polices and practices and helped to change New York State law on sexual harassment, lowering the burden of proof required to succeed in a suit. 

For more than a decade, women in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at UR were subjected a hostile environment by Professor Florian Jaeger. He commented on their bodies and on the bodies of their female colleagues; he said he wanted to bite the lips of one woman, and commented on the taste of another’s vagina. He had a series of sexual relationships with BCS students and graduate students from other institutions which he flaunted in front of his students. He had loud, exhibitionist sex with a graduate student while sharing accommodation with his students at a conference. He pried into their romantic and sexual lives, showed up at graduate student parties drinking and taking drugs. At least sixteen women changed their academic and professional lives to avoid him. Some changed their research interests, others lost out on conferences and important collaborations, and some left academia altogether.  

When professors at BCS discovered that his prolific misbehavior had so hurt women’s access to education in their department and in the field, they reported it to the University. The University shrugged it off. It conducted a whitewashing investigation and maintained that Jaeger’s conduct did not amount to unlawful harassment. The University even publicly promoted Jaeger while our clients’ complaint was pending, sending a clear message to the women who had found the courage to come forward that what they had endured did not matter. 

Unusually, our clients persisted, filing an appeal and continuing to speak out. Together our clients pled with the University at least 29 times to take action against Jaeger, with no results. This provoked the University to retaliate. It searched their emails. It called them liars and manipulators. It refused to hire one of them after her postdoc because she would “not promote departmental healing.” The University continued its campaign until seven of them were forced to leave, breaking up long-term collaborations and devastating their families and friendships as they had to scatter around the country for new jobs. 

In 2017, our clients filed with the EEOC and exposed this to public attention. It became a big story, causing scrutiny from newspapers and magazines around the world. Two of our clients were named TIME Magazine “People of the Year” for being “Silence Breakers” pivotal to the MeToo movement. Professors around the world signed a public letter saying they would not send their students any longer to work at UR. Academic groups changed their procedures for handling sexual harassment complaints, and our case fed into the new guidelines compiled by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. UR’s president for 12 years, Joel Seligman, finally resigned. Because of these consequences, the leading science journal Nature named our partner Ann Olivarius one of the 10 most significant figures of the year.   

The University responded by doubling down on its retaliatory campaign. It hired a PR firm. It also hired a leading Wall Street law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, to conduct an “independent” investigation led by Mary Jo White, former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, for which it paid $4.5 million. In fact the White investigation confirmed almost all of our allegations about Jaeger’s misconduct, stating that Jaeger had committed “offensive, inappropriate and in the nature of sexually harassing acts.” It nevertheless insisted that these did not amount to a violation of the law or University policy. She also contended that our clients had not been retaliated against.  

We filed a federal lawsuit in the Western District of New York in 2018. UR sought to have the lawsuit dismissed using the same legal arguments provided by White. In August 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo overwhelmingly denied the University’s Motion to Dismiss our suit, ruling that if proven at trial, the University’s conduct would indeed amount to retaliation and harassment.  

The ruling appeared to break the political logjam on the University Board that had resisted settlement earlier. We reached a $9.4 million settlement soon thereafter. The plaintiffs shared a portion of their proceeds with many of the women most severely affected by the hostile environment in BCS.