A Northwestern University student on the verge of earning his M.D. will be allowed to move forward with a sex discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the university, after a federal judge said he should be allowed the chance to support his allegations
Northwestern had not responded as strenuously to his sexual harassment complaints as it did for female students lodging the same complaints.
On Aug. 6, U.S. District Judge Sara L. Ellis ruled in Chicago that the plaintiff, Jonathan Woon Teck Yap, had failed to provide adequate evidence of sexual harassment within the two-year statute of limitations. She granted Northwestern’s motion to dismiss that charge, but decided Yap’s remaining two charges against the university, of discrimination and retaliation, had sufficient evidence to proceed through the courts.
Yap is a student in Northwestern’s Medical Scientist Training Program, and expects to complete his M.D. in May, according to court documents. He filed the suit under Title IX, alleging the university created a hostile educational environment and discriminated against him when it failed to address his sexual harassment complaints against an administrator as definitively as it has addressed similar complaints by female students.
According to court documents, Yap was recruited into the program in late 2006 by then-Director Dr. David Engman. Yap enrolled the following year, and within three months, the documents state, Engman allegedly began ogling him and making suggestive comments about his appearance. After complimenting his hair, the suit states, Engman once invited the student to his hotel room so he could give him a haircut. The alleged harassment continued over a period of four years, until Engman was removed as director of the program in 2011, after an assistant director filed a sexual harassment suit against him.
When Engman’s advances against the student were rebuffed, the lawsuit claims, he allegedly retaliated by sabotaging Yap’s academic career. Yap alleged the retaliation began a few months after Yap enrolled, when Engman attempted to block his receipt of a fellowship and gave him unsatisfactory grades he did not deserve, according to court documents. He also denied Yap a request for a paid leave of absence, though he had granted similar requests for other students. Even after being removed from his director position, the lawsuit states, Engman continued to retaliate against Yap, telling new administrators that he was a problem student and directing them to take actions like blocking his completion of the degrees he was pursuing, reprimanding him for missing a retreat and withdrawing a fellowship.
In 2012, Yap reported the harassment to his thesis adviser, who took the complaint to the university’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Office. In her opinion, Ellis found merit in Yap’s assertion that he was discriminated against by the office, which was slow to follow up on the report and did not interview key witnesses to the harassment.
“Although somewhat conclusory, the Court finds that Yap’s allegations do raise the plausible inference that Northwestern did not promptly respond to his complaint because he is male,” Ellis wrote.
In dismissing the sexual harassment claim, Ellis said Northwestern could not be held responsible for any of Engman’s behavior prior to Yap filing his complaint in 2012, because the university could not reasonably be expected to have been aware of the harassment. In his lawsuit, Yap did not mention any incidents of harassment after the complaint was filed, the opinion states.
The judge gave Northwestern until Aug. 28 to respond to the remaining sex discrimination and retaliation allegations in the complaint.