Apology as ‘Manipulative Ploy’

U.S. appeals court sides with Lafayette College after a former professor accused of harassment alleges he was discriminated against and ultimately fired for being emotional in front of students.

April 13, 2018
 
Andrew Kortyna

Lafayette College did not discriminate against Andrew Kortyna or otherwise violate the former physics professor's rights when it fired him over harassment and retaliation allegations in 2015, a federal appeals court said.

“The record supports the College’s decision to fire Kortyna because he had retaliated against his students after they complained that he had sexually harassed them,” Chief Judge Lawrence F. Stengel wrote in his opinion for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, affirming a lower court’s decision. “Any college would have done the same to protect its students.”

Kortyna’s Claims

Stengel’s opinion is straightforward. But Kortyna argued in a lawsuit against Lafayette that the case was anything but simple. He claimed that two female students levied vague claims of sexual harassment and retaliation against him, including that he’d defied gender norms by crying in front of them, in 2013. In response, he said, the college tried force him to accept dismissal. He refused and Lafayette proceeded with a consistently biased investigation against him on the basis of his sex, he alleged.

As a result, Kortyna said, he suffered acute anxiety attacks and was formally diagnosed with depression and panic disorder. A psychiatrist said that Kortyna would therefore require accommodation in the form of legal counsel at his disciplinary hearing. Yet the college “flatly” denied that request on multiple occasions, according to the lawsuit. He was therefore unable to properly defend himself and ended up taking medical leave due to the stress, he said.

Lafayette allegedly continued to retaliate against Kortyna after he returned to campus, including by denying requests for information about any and all of his accusers’ prior complaints about faculty members.

A second hearing process in late 2014 was similarly biased and deviated from established policies and procedures, Kortyna argued, such as by not allowing him to present witnesses on his behalf. A faculty committee ultimately recommended termination for Kortyna’s alleged actions against one student and a two-year unpaid suspension for his alleged actions against the other.

An appeal failed, and Kortyna was fired in 2015. Continuing a series of legal actions against Lafayette -- including a first, ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act -- he soon sued the college for sex and disability discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, and interference under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

More to the Story

Key to the faculty committee’s termination recommendation was the finding that Kortyna had retaliated against the students who complained about him. And additional court documents give -- in Stengel’s words -- “color” to those and other claims against Kortyna.

In a series of emails he sent to one of the student complainants in 2013, Kortyna wrote, for example, “It must be obvious to you that I like you. One would have to be blind not to notice this … I could easily see that you might think I’m trying to draw you into an inappropriate relationship.”

He also wrote that “Your way of acting of late is a really really [sic] crappy way of treating another person” and “I have obviously created an intimidating situation where you are not able to be open with me … I have no idea if our relationship is strong enough to withstand my words.”

And this: “Unless we wanted to completely turn our backs on each other, we needed to renegotiate our relationship such that prickly parts of one person didn’t stick into the sensitive parts of the other person. And I think that we both have prickly and sensitive parts.”

While Kortyna was warned not to discuss the allegations with the students involved, he also sought one of them out, crying -- ostensibly to apologize -- saying he was “probably going to get fired.”

In his opinion, Stengel said that the faculty committee and other administrators saw that act as a “manipulative ploy to induce guilt,” not some failure of masculinity, as Kortyna alleged under sex discrimination.

The committee also objected to Kortyna’s later declaration at a public lecture that he was being “forced” off campus, and found additional evidence that Kortyna and his attorney had warned both student complainants that their allegations put them at legal risk.

The appeals court opinion further says that “Kortyna alleges no facts that plausibly suggest that he was fired even in part because he seemed stereotypically unmasculine, was disabled, or had complained of discrimination. Nor do we perceive any plausible link between his termination and either his use of medical leave or any breach of contract.”

Regarding breach of contact, Stengel added, Kortyna’s allegations “that were more than conclusory asserted modest procedural irregularities that would not plausibly have affected the outcome” of his case.

Kortyna had no immediate comment Thursday. The college said it does not comment on active litigation.

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