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Former Minnesota Ph.D. student claims sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can occur between co-workers, but it can also occur between a worker and another worker in a position of authority. In either case, however, sexual harassment is not just unwanted, but it may be illegal.

A researcher who, along with the University of Minnesota, were defendants in a student's sexual harassment case, was denied qualified immunity by a federal court, which upheld an earlier court ruling. The plaintiff in this case was a Ph.D. candidate in the field of wildlife management and natural resources. According to her, in 2011 during a research trip in Alaska, the researcher, who at that point was an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and served as her mentor, engaged in acts of sexual harassment. The plaintiff claims he told her he wanted to kiss her and took photos of her buttocks. He reportedly encouraged her to imbibe in alcoholic drinks and said they should share a tent. She denied his requests.

After that, the researcher began a 12-month research agreement with the University of Minnesota. He was given an office to share with the plaintiff. At this point, the researcher reportedly sought to have a relationship with the plaintiff, although he did not actually make any sexual remarks. The plaintiff went to her academic adviser, explained the situation regarding the unwanted sexual advances and was given a different office.

In 2012, the plaintiff resigned from her position with the University of Minnesota. She has since suffered a variety of mental illnesses due to the experience, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

The University of Minnesota claimed that the research was not a university employee when the alleged acts of harassment occurred. The researcher claimed that, as a federal actor, he cannot be held personally liable in a lawsuit.

However, a U.S. District Court recently upheld an earlier ruling that the researcher did not qualify for immunity. The court ruled that the plaintiff sufficiently demonstrated that the researcher's acts constituted unwanted sexual harassment that was so severe as to alter a condition of her employment.

Time will tell how this woman's case will progress, but she took a brave step in seeking legal action against those who harmed her. Other workers in situations like hers may want to research whether they may be able to pursue legal action against their harassers.

Source: insidehighered.com, "Researcher Denied Immunity in Harassment Case," Colleen Flaherty, Oct. 4, 2016

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