For the third time in a 12-month period, Cal State Fullerton must make a six-figure payment in a sexual harassment case.
The most recent victim is fighting to get the university to remove a letter of reprimand from her personnel file, which prompted the suit.
A jury in March deliberated four hours before announcing its unanimous verdict, awarding assistant biology professor Sandra Banack $75,000 in damages. Two months later, a Superior Court judge awarded her attorney $236,804 in fees, bringing the amount to $311,000. In late May, the university appealed the jury's award as well as the fees granted to Banack's lawyer.
Jury forewoman Gaetane M. Boutin said that the campus officials involved in the case should be disciplined, and she criticized the university's attorney for allowing the case to go to trial at all.
"If [CSUF officials] had done their job, we wouldn't have had to sit on that panel," Boutin said in a recent interview.
Two previous settlements the university made, in March 2000, resulted from the actions of Charles B. Darke, the former director of the student health center. Pamela Losco, his administrative assistant, received $447,000. Her secretary, Debbie Melsheimer, received $100,000.
Those lawsuits alleged nearly a decade of unwanted groping, touching, exposure and provocative comments by Darke. Losco's suit listed administrators she said she had made complaints to, without results.
Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, said the number of CSUF cases isn't surprising considering the size of the Cal State system. With 40,000 employees, 380,000 students and a $6-billon budget for 23 campuses, it's inevitable that not everything goes right, he said.
"None of us likes these things, but they're bound to happen," Reed said. "These are problems that occur in every business organization, government and university or college throughout the country."
The latest case is not a traditional sexual harassment suit in which someone was groped or subjected to unwanted sexual remarks. The suit charged that the university created a hostile work environment for Banack because she is a woman.
The lawsuit revolves around a reprimand that Margaret Atwell, CSUF's associate vice president of academic affairs, wrote to Banack on Aug. 18, 1998, without getting the professor's version of events. CSUF President Milton A. Gordon upheld the reprimand six weeks later, after Banack asked for a review. Gordon could not be reached for comment.
"It was never investigated, and they wrote a letter without investigating the facts and we [the jury] all felt the same way," Boutin said.
Atwell did not return calls seeking comment, and university information officers instead referred queries to Cal State University system attorney Susan Westover, who represented CSUF at the trial.
Asked why the university lost the suit, Westover replied: "I think the jury thought what happened to Dr. Banack was unfair. I think they struggled with whether it had to do with her gender. We're pretty firmly of the belief that it didn't."
Support From Some University Officials
Banack, who continues to teach at CSUF, said her problems were not with other professors and that the head of the biology department and the dean of natural sciences and mathematics supported her.
"She's doing very well," said Dean Kolf Jayaweera. "She's good in research. She's a very good teacher and she's done very well on her evaluations."
The lawsuit involves the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees animal research at CSUF and reports to Atwell. The nine-person committee is made up of faculty, administrators, a veterinarian and a public member.
Banack, 37, started working at CSUF in August 1997. She earned her doctorate from UC Berkeley and first taught at Brigham Young University in Utah.
At issue were accusations that Banack trespassed on private property during a class field trip to Carbon Canyon on Feb. 18, 1998, and violated terms of her permit to collect animals from the state Department of Fish and Game. A key piece of evidence was a letter written to Fish and Game by Vickie Langille, who worked as staff assistant to the animal care committee.
The letter laid out many of the accusations, which Banack later challenged.
Atwell wrote the reprimand to Banack without discussing it with the professor.
"Every piece in the [Langille] letter was proven false," jury forewoman Boutin said.
Worried that the reprimand would hurt her chance of securing tenure, Banack asked that the letter be pulled from her personnel file. University officials declined.
"I just wanted them to fix it," Banack said. "Your reputation is all you have as a professional. They were trying to get me fired."