Law prof's suit against law school alleges race and gender discrimination, family status bias
A federal lawsuit alleging race, gender and disability discrimination was filed Friday against the University of Michigan and its law school by a law professor who is Black and a single mother.
Laura Beny, who teaches corporate law, has tenure and a chaired professorship. According to her Aug. 26 lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, other professors in her cohort earned more than her, and when she complained, the university retaliated against her with sanctions.
According to a website with salary information for the University of Michigan, Beny and two of her cohorts had a starting salary of $116,000 in 2003. One cohort, a white woman, left the university in 2012. The other, a white man, had a higher salary than Beny starting in the 2011-2012 school year.
By the 2014-2015 year, his salary was $222,700, while Beny’s was $216,600. For the following year, they both had the same salary, which was $229,034. For the 2021-2022 school year, the website lists their salaries as $252,643.
Additionally, the filing alleges that the University of Michigan Law School unfairly accused Beny of retaliating against a student who complained about her and abandoning her duties. None of the accusations is true, according to the lawsuit.
Mark West, who was the law school’s associate dean before he was appointed dean in 2013, is named as an individual defendant. Beny claims that West’s behavior was inappropriate on numerous occasions, and the complaint quotes emails that West allegedly wrote. One from 2010 involved a university photo request.
“People are persecuting me because of your beauty. Make them stop!! The people down in communications are all over my ass trying to get me to cajole you into finding time for a photoshoot,” West wrote, according to the complaint.
It also alleges that he signed off the communication with: “I will not grovel to you again. Your humble minion, Mark XOXOXO.”
Beny alleges that in another 2010 email, West wrote that he would put a photo of her infant daughter on his desk and tell everyone that the child was his.
“No other single parents were on the faculty at defendant law school to plaintiff’s knowledge and belief; and defendant West never spoke to other new mothers, white women, on the faculty in the same offensive manner,” according to the complaint.
West referred an ABA Journal interview request to a university spokesperson, who described Beny’s complaint as “meritless” in an email.
Beny was hired as a tenure-track professor in 2003, received tenure in 2008 and earned a chaired professorship in 2019. There were two other people in her cohort, a white woman and a white man, and both earned more money than her, according to the complaint. She also alleges the man received a chaired professorship five years before she did.
Beny filed various administrative complaints with the university, and in retaliation, she was sanctioned, according to the lawsuit. It references a 2019 meeting and a memo that allegedly stated that her sabbatical was pushed back one year. According to the lawsuit, this was done in retaliation after she criticized an international students event for lacking diversity and had a disagreement with West’s assistant.
“The document was one-sided, contained several false allegations and did not include plaintiff’s account of events,” according to the complaint.
It also claims that the law school’s white male professors are not disciplined for behaving inappropriately.
A February incident regarding an anonymous student complaint is also detailed in the lawsuit.
The “allegation allegedly made by the student was that [Beny] assigned problems on Jan. 16, 2022 and made them due on Jan. 17, 2022; and [Beny] performed poorly in class on Jan. 17, 2022. Neither of these allegations was true,” according to the suit.
This was not a law school class but a course that she taught for the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
After receiving the complaint, Beny told the class that she welcomed constructive criticism “but pleaded with them not to spread malicious lies that can have a severe negative impact on her well-being and livelihood,” according to the complaint.
Shortly after class, an associate dean at the law school accused Beny of retaliating against the students, the action states. She was overwhelmed, thought that her speech rights were violated, and emailed the college students that she could no longer teach the class, according to the complaint.
That led to Beny being accused of abandoning her duties, which she denies, according to the suit.
At the end of February, Beny filed a medical leave claim “due to psychological injury incurred on the job,” according to the complaint. It also claims that in March, while Beny was on leave, she received a disciplinary letter from West, stating that she would not be eligible for salary raises, various funding offerings or discretionary leave, including sabbaticals, until June 30, 2027.
Additionally, the complaint claims West accused Beny in the disciplinary letter of possibly carrying a gun to the law school campus. There is no evidence to support that, according to the lawsuit, which describes the alleged statement as “racist profiling” meant to build animus from faculty and intimidate Beny.
Beny was released from medical leave in May, but West said in June she would not be teaching again for an “indefinite period,” according to the lawsuit. The university spokesperson told the ABA Journal Beny remains a tenured law professor at the school.