A Tale of Two Lawyers In Columbia’s Trial

Attorney David Sanford represented the untenured Columbia Business School Professor Enrichetta Ravina

After a more than two week trial in a $30 million sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit involving Columbia Business School and two professors, lawyers delivered their summation arguments yesterday (July 25) afternoon. David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP, represented Enrichetta Ravina, the untenured junior professor who claims that she was a victim of sexual harassment and that her academic career was sabotaged by Geert Bekaert, a senior tenured faculty member at Columbia Business School.

Edward Hernstadt of Hernstadt Atlas PLLC, defended Bekaert, portraying the case as “a story of the betrayal of a research partnership and a friendship through scapegoating to evade the consequences of failure to publish, rather than a case of discrimination or retaliation.”

Bettina Plevan represented Columbia University, arguing that the university did everything it could to investigate Ravina’s claims.

A jury began its deliberations this morning. If they find in favor of Ravina, a mini-trial over damages will then commence, with opening witnesses and closing. That portion of the case could last a day and one-half. Then, the jury would reconvene and come back with a damage verdict.

The Judge instructed the parties t

Here are excerpts from both the summations delivered by Hernstadt and Sanford to the court.

Edward Hernstadt, lawyer for Columbia Business School finance professor Geert Bekaert:

Attorney Edward Hernstadt

Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have heard days of testimony, you have been shown stacks of e-mails and other documents, but we know that this case really comes down to one thing: Who’s telling the truth here?

The judge will instruct you about what evidence you should consider and how, but credibility, who you believe is telling the truth, will come down in the end to your common sense, your own life experience, your judgment in assessing the two main witnesses — Professor Ravina and Professor Bekaert — and all the e-mails and other documents that shed light on their testimony.

Over the past weeks you have heard the story of an academic who received her third straight terrible evaluation in the spring of 2014, and knew that, based on her meager publication record, two papers in the nine years as of 2014 since she got her Ph.D., that there was no way she was ever going to get tenure at Columbia.

This is the story of Professor Ravina’s deciding to take a different route to tenure, her plan B, by blaming her failure on Professor Bekaert. To do so, Professor Ravina twisted examples of the friendly and collegial friendship between them into something false and dark, and, worse, made an ugly allegation about him.

‘WHO DO YOU BELIVE IS TELLING THE TRUTH?’

Throughout this case the testimony of Professor Ravina and Professor Bekaert is directly contradictory, which means that in the end you will have to answer the question of which of these two people is more credible.

Who do you believe is telling the truth?

The evidence you have heard overwhelmingly demonstrates that Professor Ravina is not telling the truth. Professor Ravina has asserted that Professor Bekaert discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the prevail, Professor Ravina must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Professor Bekaert treated her less well at least in part because of her gender.

‘HER STORIES ABOUT HIM ARE WRONG, THEY ARE MISLEADING…THEY ARE JUST NOT TRUE’

These are the allegations of sexual advances and harassment. And Professor Ravina must also prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Professor Bekaert retaliated against her after she complained of sex discrimination by taking actions that were intended to and were likely to deter a
person from engaging in protected activity.

Based on all the evidence, it’s clear that Professor Bekaert did not make any advances towards Professor Ravina. He did not try to push her into a sexual relationship with the threat of delaying work. He did not try to delay the 401(k) papers at any time.

Her stories about him are wrong, they are misleading, and, in the case of the worst thing she says about him, they are just not true.

‘HE CALLS HER EVIL. HE SAYS SHE’S CRAZY, INSANE. THIS IS A NATURAL REACTION’

We know what Professor Ravina’s referring to when she says that Professor Bekaert disparaged her. These are the 2014 e-mails in which he calls her a bitch, he calls her evil, he says she’s crazy, insane, and the like.

Now, none of these e-mails are likely to deter anyone from engaging in protected activity, but the plaintiff has spent a lot of time talking about them because they are rude and they are shocking. And I’m sorry to say you’re probably hear the word “bitch” a lot today.

One thing we know is that Professor Bekaert’s use of this word to his girlfriend, or close friend, is not discrimination, it is not addressed to Professor Ravina, and it is also not retaliation. It is not retaliation because he sent them to his girlfriend and his close friends. They’re clearly a private outlet for him to express and vent to his girlfriend his sense of betrayal, his sense of disappointment, and sense of anger, his sense of loss. This is a natural reaction, and it is only to be expected even if it uses rude words like bitch.

‘HE WAS BLOWING OFF STEAM’

You’re going to hear plaintiff’s counsel, possibly, use the words “strangle” as if the e-mail in which Professor Bekaert used that word is itself an attempt at assault. Read the e-mail for the full context. You can see it is a back and forth between him and his girlfriend before he even knew that Professor Ravina had made a sexual harassment complaint. It’s not retaliation.

And even if she had known about these e-mails, she had no idea about them until this case. Even if she knew about them, how is complaining to a loved one, even using strong words, even using words like bitch or evil or crazy, how is that not something you would expect someone you accuse of wrongdoing to do. To blow off steam to a loved one. To vent. Professor Bekaert’s testimony shows that this is exactly what he was doing. There’s no evidence that he intended to disparage, that he intended to harm her reputation.

This has been a long trial. And we’re asking you now to do even more work. Please think about the testimony you’ve  heard, think about the documents you’ve seen, think about the credibility of the witnesses. Their demeanor, their honesty, their willingness to admit things even if it doesn’t help them.

Think about their biases, think about their influences. Consider the documents, the e-mails in their full context. I’m sure that when you do, you’ll agree that Professor Bekaert did not discriminate against Professor Ravina, did not retaliate against Professor Ravina, and reach a verdict in his
favor. Thank you.