Court narrows Black law prof's discrimination suit against University of Michigan Law School
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A federal judge in Detroit has narrowed a Black law professor’s discrimination lawsuit against the University of Michigan Law School.
In a July 7 opinion, U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson tossed claims of race, sex and disability discrimination filed by law and economics professor Laura Beny, report Law360 and Law.com. But Lawson allowed a federal retaliation claim against the university’s board of regents and a state-law retaliation claim against the law school dean, Mark D. West.
Beny could sue for retaliation because she alleged her teaching duties, committee-service duties, salary and benefits were suspended shortly after she made an internal bias complaint, Lawson said.
Beny had alleged she received inappropriate emails from West when he was associate dean; that she made less money than other professors in her cohort; that she didn’t get the same career opportunities as her peers; that white professors were given greater flexibility to teach by Zoom; that she was wrongly accused of wrongdoing in an attempt to smear her; that she was disciplined for conduct that white professors engage in with impunity; and that her teaching responsibilities and other benefits were suspended when she filed a complaint with the university. She was told the salary discrepancy was a mistake and she received back pay.
Beny was a single mother. She took three medical leaves. She said the first, in 2017, was due to the toll of a hostile work environment. The second, in 2019, was for work-related psychological trauma. The third was in February 2022 for extreme psychological distress after an anonymous student complaint that she said was false. She has not returned to the classroom.
Lawson tossed all but the retaliation claims on several grounds. They included 11th Amendment immunity for the university regents on state law claims in federal court, an inability to sue West for some claims in his individual capacity under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and insufficient facts to establish discrimination or a hostile work environment.
Beny didn’t plead sufficient facts to show discrimination based on race, gender or family status, Lawson said.
“Conclusory assertions that the plaintiff was treated less favorably than her white, male or married colleagues are not sufficient to support an inference of intentional discrimination,” Lawson wrote. “Although ‘disparate treatment of similarly situated people may support an inference of discrimination,’ the plaintiff has ‘not identified any similarly situated individuals’ whom the defendants treated better during the statutory period, but merely alleged that said individuals exist.”
With regard to Beny’s hostile workplace claims, Lawson said the alleged harassment isn’t sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an abusive working environment
Beny “merely contends that she was treated differently than her colleagues and falsely accused of misconduct,” Lawson said. “That may have been personally frustrating to the plaintiff. But the ‘standards for judging hostility’ under Title VII ‘are sufficiently demanding to … filter out complaints attacking the ordinary tribulations of the workplace.’ “