October 7, 2009
Airing Dirty Laundry in Public: Kyndra Rotunda Sues George Mason Law for Workplace Sexual Harassment
In an e-mail to the Washington legal community in the summer of 2008 to announce that he and wife Kyndra Rotunda were leaving George Mason for employment at Chapman Law School, Constitutional law professor Ronald Rotunda wrote: "We are...pleased to be leaving George Mason University." Why so happy to leave a top tier law school for Chapman? Well, Kyndra Rotunda had resigned in the summer of 2007, and after receiving an EEOC "right to sue" letter in July of this year, the reasons both have moved on are clear.
Kyndra Rotunda, formerly George Mason Law's director of a legal assistance clinic for military service members, has filed a lawsuit leveling 13 counts including sex and pay discrimination, actual and constructive termination, retaliation and constitutional violations against her and her husband's former employer. She alleges that the clinic's executive director, Joseph Zengerle, drove her into leaving after she turned down his sexual advances and the law school "knowingly" tolerated his behavior. In an interview before suing George Mason Law, Kyndra Rotunda said "I was sexually harassed at one of America's upper-tier law schools, and they shouldn't be able to get away with it." You be the judge.
For the National Law Journal, Jordan Weissmann and Tony Mauro summarizes allegations made in Rotunda's complaint:
Rotunda claims that Zengerle became uncomfortably attentive. In one incident, she claims he called himself her "knight and protector"; in another he bought her a scarf and suggested how she should wear it. In December 2006, according to the complaint, he allegedly invited her to drinks alone at his house, then stormed into her office screaming after she did not go.
After that incident, Rotunda claims in court documents, Zengerle began micromanaging her work. He "repeatedly came uncomfortably close." There was another screaming incident.
Rotunda alleges that her complaints to administrators were largely ignored, leading only to a perfunctory investigation and forced mediation between her and Zengerle. She says in court documents that administrators tried to wring concessions from her that would "weaken her legal position."
On Aug. 3, 2007, Rotunda filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Within a few days, she alleges, Zengerle handed her a written reprimand, criticizing her for insubordination. She resigned later that month.
The NLJ article reports that the university's equity office found "severe conflict" between the parties, but not on the basis of gender, and dismissed the harassment claim.
After her resignation, Ronald Rotunda took his wife's cause to the faculty grievance committee. According to the NLJ story, the faculty grievance committee criticized the way that university officials handled the complaints but did not rule on the harassment claim. Jordan Weissmann and Tony Mauro add
Disgusted at the situation, Ronald Rotunda resigned in mid-2008, telling [George Mason law Dean] Polsby in his resignation letter, "For the past year, George Mason has revealed itself as an institution more concerned with hiding its dirty laundry than cleaning it."
Status: In response to the complaint, defendants George Mason University, law school Dean Daniel Polsby and Joseph Zengerle have denied all allegations of wrongdoing. Par for the course, of course, in those instances where an employer's legal counsel hasn't advised or his clients has refused his advice to "write a check" to settle the matter out of court. One has to know that having law profs as defendant-clients in an employment case like this one isn't going to be a fun gig.
Thou shalt not reprimand an employee for insubordination after filing an EEOC charge. Even if the law school claims it was unaware of the filing, the university's "severe conflict" finding merited dialing down the volume "below 11" unless the reprimand's intent was to make Kyndra Rotunda's life at work so miserable that she would leave quietly. That happens all the time in the workplace but the law school must have been utterly clueless if it thought a former US Army attorney who was a member of the military legal team that prosecuted Osama bin Laden's driver would walk away quietly.
Rotunda's lawsuit, by the way, survived a motion to dismiss last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The plaintiff has many more hurdles to overcome if the litigation moves forward but, at a gut-check level, George Mason Law Dean Daniel Polsby and Joseph Zengerle are no match for a former Gitmo attorney. Let the airing of dirty laundry in public begin. [JH]
i'm confused. in what way is kyndra trying to "bully a male lawyer to obfuscate [her] shortcomings"? what shortcomings? and isn't he bullying her? and doesn't she NEED to file an EEOC claim first if she wants to pursue this suit on her own (hence the right to sue letter)--which i take it she is doing? i'm not sure your post makes any sense.
Posted by: anon | Oct 8, 2009 12:34:00 PM
Jan, for a purported second wave feminist, you're awfully eager to dismiss this lawyer's claims of harassment and discrimination, which certainly seem facially valid, at least. Being intelligent and hyper-competent, as you surely must know, hardly makes women immune to harassment. If anything, the higher up we get, the more harsh is the scrutiny on our every move. Intense pressure to accede to unreasonable employer demands exists at EVERY step on the employment ladder. Writing her off simply because "well she should know better" is a rejection of everything second wave feminism was supposed to stand for. How demeaning for you to presume that her being sexually harassed had anything to do with her competence or ability to "play in the big leagues," whatever implicit sexism that euphemism is meant to cover up. She was sexually harassed for the same reason EVERY woman who is sexually harassed is harassed: because a male superior decided he was entitled to harass her. Period.
Posted by: LeGal | Oct 8, 2009 10:18:16 AM
Many in the Washington legal community have sat on the sidelines watching the fray between Kyndra Rotunda and Joe Zengerle for too long now. As a long time and second wave feminist, I find it most detrimental to our cause for a female attorney to engage in this whining behavior, exhausting the scarce resources of the EEOC on behalf of a female lawyer who apparently cannot fend for herself. If you want to play in the big leagues, you ought to know the plays and how to handle men, women, children and fellow attorneys. If not, then stay out of the game. While we fight injustices for our clients, we cannot use the legal system to bully male lawyers to obfuscate our shortcomings.
Not terribly impressed she was a Gitmo lawyer. That was a bully's pulpit if ever there was one.
Posted by: Jan Pederson | Oct 7, 2009 12:12:07 PM