No damages awarded to former professor in CSU sexual harassment trial

Collegian Staff

 

Former Colorado State University assistant professor Christina Boucher testifies during a trial in a lawsuit against Colorado State University accusing the college of retaliation and sexual harassment against Boucher, as seen on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, at the Larimer County Justice Center in Fort Collins, Colo.(Photo courtesy of Tim Hurst/ The Coloradoan)

Editor’s note: This article contains sensitive information regarding sexual harassment and mental health issues.

Ad

A jury determined that actions taken by Colorado State University against a former assistant professor who reported a claim of sexual harassment did not qualify as retaliation in court Aug. 28.

The six jurors unanimously agreed that Christina Boucher, a former computer science assistant professor at the University, was partaking in protected activity, an Equal Employment Opportunity commission law which prohibits punishing employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination when she reported a claim of sexual harassment in October 2014.

The jury did not determine that the University engaged in materially adverse action, which is any action that might deter a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity.

In a statement from Progressive Promotions, a media company who partnered with Boucher’s case, Boucher said she hopes that this “heartbreaking setback” does not stop other women from speaking out.

“This trial gave me an opportunity to expose the toxic climate for women in the computer science department at CSU and to tell my full story about how CSU administrators ran a campaign of retaliation against me, in effect punishing the victim for reporting sexual harassment,” Boucher said in the release.

Boucher said the trial and the events leading up to it left an impact on her family as well as her physical and mental health. 

“What happened to me was wrong and I wanted to stand up for what is right. Of course I had hoped there would be justice and I would be vindicated,” Boucher said. “Nonetheless, I hope that the trial itself will have an impact on the climate for women at CSU and that in the future, CSU will deal with campus sexual harassment sympathetically, without blaming the victim.” 

Mike Hooker, director of public affairs and communications at CSU, wrote in an email to The Collegian that the University is pleased with the verdict.

“CSU takes sexual harassment and retaliation laws very seriously,” Hooker wrote. “We thank the members of the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence that was presented at trial.”

Boucher, who was seeking damages for emotional distress, was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read because she had a flight to catch, her attorney Sam Cannon said.

Ad

Key points in the trial:

  • Christina Boucher filed a lawsuit against CSU June 15, 2017, claiming she faced retaliation after reporting professor Asa Ben-Hur sexually harassed her.
  • The harassment is said to have started during summer 2012 before Boucher started working at CSU, during her initial interview.
  • On Oct. 28, 2014, Boucher reported to Computer Science Department Chair Darrell Whitley that Ben-Hur would stare at her chest and backside in a sexual manner.
  • Boucher alleged that her tenure was affected after she reported the harassment. According to court documents, she received a negative evaluation from the tenure and promotions committee, which Ben-Hur sat on.
  • CSU disputed Boucher’s claims and asked a judge to rule that the case has no merit May 28, 2018.
  • Boucher’s lawyers filed a response June 11, claiming that there is a culture of gender discrimination at CSU.
  • On June 25, Larimer County District Court Judge Stephen Jouard denied CSU’s request for summary judgment, which asked the court to rule Boucher’s claims were without merit and to throw the case out prior to the scheduled jury trial. 

Prior to Tuesday’s deliberations, Cannon argued that Boucher should be awarded $528,800 in damages to compensate for every hour Boucher thought about taking her own life – $100 per hour for 8 hours a day over a span of 661 days.

“I’m not happy with the verdict, but that’s what the jury says,” Cannon said. “We’ll move forward and evaluate our options and decide what to do next.” 

Throughout the events leading up to the trial, CSU denied Boucher’s allegations. Hooker previously told The Collegian the University did not take adverse action against any employee based on Boucher’s allegations. 

Boucher filed a lawsuit against the University June 15, 2017, claiming she faced retaliation and was forced to resign from her position after reporting to Computer Science Department Chair Darrell Whitley and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences Janice Nerger that professor Asa Ben-Hur sexually harassed her.

According to court documents, the harassment is said to have started during summer 2012 before Boucher started working at CSU, saying computer science professor Ben-Hur would stare at her chest and backside.

The lawsuit alleges that, before Boucher reported being sexually harassed by Ben Hur to Whitley and Nerger, she received two positive performance reviews from Whitley in March 2013 and March 2014.

During the trial, which began Aug. 20, Boucher said the treatment affected her, while witnesses such as Ben-Hur and Nerger disputed Boucher’s allegations.Throughout the trial, the University asked the jury to consider Boucher’s psychiatric well-being. 

During the plaintiff’s final argument, Cannon said that there was direct and indirect evidence that Boucher was retaliated against by CSU, which included a negative third-year evaluation, differential treatment of Boucher compared to other professors and non-compliance with University policy regarding sexual harassment claims.

Cara Morlan of the Colorado Attorney General’s office delivered the closing argument on behalf of CSU, arguing that the University’s actions were not in violation of University policy and were a result of Boucher’s behavioral issues.

The University cited several incidents identified by Whitley and Nerger as warning signs prior to Boucher’s report of sexual harassment, including interactions with the Denver Zoo over a grant, an alleged refusal to teach life sciences students and a disagreement about a letter of support for a National Science Foundation grant application.

In the closing minutes of the defense’s argument, Morlan described Boucher as an employee who lashed out whenever she perceived any criticism.

The defense also questioned Boucher’s credibility, arguing that her allegations were inconsistent and had constantly shifted over time.

In Boucher’s response, she expressed her feelings on the proceedings of the case.

“For the last seven days I have had to endure CSU’s counsel calling me a difficult, unpredictable and dishonest woman,” Boucher wrote. “This sort of ‘gaslighting’ is a common way to discredit accusers.”

Hooker wrote it is important to differentiate between Boucher’s allegations in her complaint and comments to media organizations compared with evidence introduced at trial.

“The jury’s decision is consistent with the findings of the CSU Office of Equal Opportunity, which had previously investigated Dr. Boucher’s complaints and determined that no university policy had been violated and that there was no sexual harassment or retaliation against Dr. Boucher,” Hooker wrote. 

Collegian news team can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @CSUCollegian.