The professor who won a retaliation suit against Columbia Business School Professor Geert Bekaert last week plans to file an appeal of her claims of sexual harassment against Bekaert and Columbia University.
David Sanford, chairman of Sanford Heisler Sharp and Ravina’s attorney, confirmed that the appeal will shortly be filed alleging errors of law by Judge Ronnie Abrams who presided over the 15-day trial. The Second Court of Appeals will review the appeal and decide whether to send the case back to be retried in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Though Sanford secured a $1.25 million retaliation verdict in favor of his client Enrichetta Ravina, the jury did not find for Ravina on charges of sexual harassment and gender discrimination (see Prof Wins $1.25 Million From Columbia & Business School Professor Geert Bekaert). Columbia University was held liable with Bekaert for compensatory damges of $750,000 but only because New York City Human Rights Law makes employers responsible for acts of retaliation committed by employees. The jury also held Bekaert liable for $500,000 in punitive damages.
‘THE QUESTION REALLY IS WHY THE JURY DIDN’T GET IT ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT & GENDER DISCRIMINATION’
“I am delighted to get this verdict for Ravina,” Sanford told Poets&Quants. “There are few seven-figure awards for retaliation in the Southern District of New York. But the question really is why the jury didn’t get it on sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The standard (for gender discrimination) in New York City is whether a person treats a woman less well. We had a lot of evidence that she was treated less well. It is a low bar. It shouldn’t have been that complicated for the jury to find that way.”
The high profile case pitted a junior untenured female professor of finance at Columbia Business School against her one-time mentor, a male senior tenured professor. The pair agreed to collaborate together in 2008 on several major research projects based on a massive dataset of retirement accounts. Ravina, however, claims that Bekaert soon began to make unwanted overtures in an effort to turn a professional relationship into a more personal one.
Ravina, who is now a visiting professor at the Kellogg School of Management, claimed that Bekaert started off confessing that his marriage was on the rocks and asked her if she had a live-in boyfriend. As the months went by, Bekaert, she alleged, racketed up what she believed was an effort to gain an intimate relationship. Ravina said he frequently discussed his sexual exploits with her, talked about viewing pornography, and made comments about female prostitution. She also claimed that Bekeart aggressively sought an intimate relationship with her over the course of more than two years. She asserted that he insisted that she meet with him off-campus, subjected her to unwanted touching, suggested that she should compliment him on his appearance, described her as “sexy,” indicated to her he was “horny,” and tried to take her on dates. When Ravina said she resisted Bekaert’s sexual advances and that Bekaert told her that if she were “nicer” to him, her research would proceed faster. Instead, because of her refusals, he delayed and obstructed the work and blocked her from publishing her papers, Ravina testified (see Columbia Business School’s Shocking #MeToo Trial).
RAVINA LAWYER BELIEVES JURY VERDICT WAS IMPACTED BY ERRORS OF LAW
After she brought her concerns to the dean’s office at Columbia Business School in mid-2014, Ravina says that her working relationship with Bekaert got worse as he began stalling on their research work while her tenure clock ticked away. Bekaert also began sending emails to colleagues in the academic and finance community throughout the world, referring to her as an “evil bitch,” “insane” and “crazy.” Many of those emails were sent to highly influential scholars in the finance field, including the editors of the most prestigious academic journals in finance.
While the jury of four men and four women found against Bekaert on retaliation, they disagreed that he or the university engaged in either sexual harassment or gender discrimination. Sanford believes the verdict was impacted by errors of law in the case.
Among other things, Judge Abrams would not allow an expert witness on sexual harassment to testify at the trial, a decision that could have impacted jurors understanding of the legal definition of sexual harassment, which includes unwelcome sexual advances and how such actions can create a hostile and intimidating work environment. Sanford had hoped to call Stanford Law School Professor Deborah Rhode, one of the nation’s foremost experts on sexual harassment, but the judge thought that was unnecessary.
JUDGE PREVENTED JURY FROM KNOWING THAT SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS OF FACULTY SUPPORTED HER
At a time when sexual assault has made frequent headlines and helped to fuel the #MeToo movement, the public may well have become desensitized to issues of sexual harassment. “In this era where you have a president talking about grabbing a woman’s vagina, the bar has been raised,” said Sanford.
The judge also prevented jurors from learning how many of Ravina’s colleagues in Columbia Business School’s finance and economics division had sided with her. Senior faculty at the school drafted and signed three petitions sent to the business school and the university in her support. The first petition, calling for the school to create specific guidelines for future collaborations between junior and senior faculty, had been signed by 22 out of the 36 senior tenured faculty in the division. The suggested guidelines were a direct result of the allegations that Ravina had levied against Bekaert.
The petition, supported by roughly 60% of the tenured faculty, noted that “senior faculty should be cognizant of the power relationship that inevitably shades any collaboration between a senior and junior faculty members, should avoid any excess pressure on junior colleagues, and endeavor to avoid delays in research progress that place the junior faculty member’s career at risk when a problem arises in the collaboration..we also recommend that, if there is a falling out between a junior and senior faculty member with respect to a research project, which threatens to significantly delay progress on said project, the senior faculty member should be expected to step aside and relinquish control and intellectual property over the joint research project to the junior faculty member.”
‘SHE IS A MOST CREDIBLE AND LIKEABLE PERSON’
The second petition, in January of 2016, expressing support for Ravina’s request to have her tenure clock extended, was signed by 16 of the professors. A third and final petition, in March of 2016, noting that the faculty were not in a position to provide an evaluation of Ravina’s tenure case at the time, drew signatures from 17 of the division’s professors.
The petitions fell on deaf ears. The school moved ahead with an accelerated tenure review, denying her tenure in April of 2016. Ravina left Columbia Business School in July of 2017 and is currently on a two-year contract as a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Sanford thought Ravina’s testimony in the case was highly credible. “She is a most credible and likable person and obviously the jury agreed,” he said. “To give her a seven-figure verdict, they believed her story. There are not a lot of compensatory awards in this district at that level.”