Former Columbia Prof Gets $1.25M Retaliation Award

Posted July 27th, 2018.

As It Appeared On
Law360

By Braden Campbell

Law360, New York (July 27, 2018, 6:25 PM EDT) — A Manhattan federal jury awarded $1.25 million in damages Friday to Enrichetta Ravina, a former Columbia University professor who said she was denied tenure after complaining that Columbia colleague Geert Bekaert had sexually harassed her.

The jury said Bekaert owed $500,000 in punitive damages and that he and the school owed $750,000 in compensatory damages on Ravina’s successful retaliation claims. The jury did not award Ravina the front or back pay she sought. Columbia and Bekaert will decide how to split the compensatory award.

Ravina’s attorney, David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, said in a statement Friday that the award “should send a clear message to Columbia University and the world of higher education that workplace retaliation and abuse of power in academia will not be tolerated.”

“Because of the verdict, she’s vindicated throughout the world,” he said outside the court.

Bekaert said in a statement he is “very pleased” the jury cleared him of sexual harassment claims “that have been hanging over my head for the past two years.”

“I am also happy that the jury seemed to agree that nothing Columbia or I did had any impact on Professor Ravina’s tenure vote and gave her nothing for lost back pay and nothing for lost pay into the future,” he said. “My legal team and I are considering next steps regarding the damages that were awarded.”

A Columbia spokesman said Friday the school “prohibits retaliation against any member of its community and very much regrets the actions by our faculty member in this matter.”

The damages verdict capped the first civil sexual harassment suit against a big-name defendant to go to trial since the start of the #MeToo movement last year. The trial began July 9 before U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams.

Ravina alleged Bekaert, her onetime mentor, stalled research that would have boosted her tenure bid because she rejected his sexual advances. Columbia then began to undermine her tenure candidacy in 2014, she claimed. Her tenure bid was officially shot down in 2016.

Ravina prevailed Thursday on her retaliation claims against Bekaert and against Columbia based on his conduct. The jury also held Thursday that Bekaert, but not Columbia, could be held liable for punitive damages. Jurors rejected Ravina’s gender discrimination claims against both.

Before Friday’s damages verdict, Bekaert, who denies sexually harassing Ravina, said in morning testimony that the dispute has been “hell” for him, and reminded the jury that Ravina and her legal team, not he, pushed the press to cover the case.

A July 9 release from Sanford Heisler said, for example, that Ravina’s “professional and personal life was completely derailed while the elite academic institution that should have protected her did nothing.”

“My reputation is completely shattered,” Bekaert told the jury. “I have a scarlet letter on my forehead wherever I go.”

Bekaert told the jury he makes $350,000 per year at Columbia, has about $2 million in retirement accounts and owned about $1.8 million worth of shares in a financial concern as of earlier this year. He said he has roughly $2 million in debts, including divorce-related liabilities.

Ravina said Thursday she earns $281,000 per year at her current job at Northwestern University — more than she earned when she left Columbia. But she said she is likely to lose $3.6 million in salary and $400,000 in retirement benefits over the next three decades because Bekaert’s retaliation will force her into a tenure track at a lesser school. She called the Northwestern visiting professor job “better than nothing.”

On Friday, Bekaert also disputed Ravina’s belief that he destroyed her reputation throughout an insular industry by sending disparaging emails about her.

“This is a huge profession with lots and lots of professionals,” he said.

Asked by Ravina’s legal team if Columbia would indemnify him for any damages, Bekaert said, “I have no idea.” He and his counsel have declined to comment on that matter.

But it was Ravina’s counsel Sanford who got the last word. Closing on damages, Sanford invoked the #MeToo anti-sexual bullying movement and asked the jury to send a message to society that Bekaert’s conduct, including emails that disparaged Ravina’s mental health, should not be tolerated.

Sanford also accused Bekaert of bearing no remorse, calling him a “privileged white male” who is used to being in control and in a “position of dominance.”

“Only you have the power to say enough is enough,” Sanford said. “You can’t make him show remorse, but you can make him take responsibility.”

Sanford also returned to Ravina’s contention that her current job at Northwestern is a “dead-end job” because it expires in 2019. He said the jury should assume she would have gotten tenure at Columbia — something the defense disputed — and award her accordingly.

“Her academic prospects are diminished,” he said.

Ravina’s award clocks in at far less than the $4 million in salary and retirement benefits she argued Bekaert’s retaliation cost her. But it includes a “pretty hefty punitive award against an individual,” said Katz Marshall & Banks LLP attorney Debra Katz, who represents workers in sexual harassment and retaliation suits.

“The jury clearly looked at his conduct and said it was unlawful and it warranted the imposition of punitive damages,” she said. “Obviously, the jury was concerned.”

Ravina is represented by David Sanford, Alexandra Harwin, Vincent McKnight, Andrew Melzer, Melinda Koster and Amy Donehower of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.

Columbia is represented by Bettina B. Plevan, Steven D. Hurd, Rachel S. Fischer and P. Kramer Rice of Proskauer Rose LLP.

Bekaert is represented by Edward Hernstadt of Hernstadt Atlas PLLC.

The case is Ravina v. Columbia University, case number 1:16-cv-02137, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

–Additional reporting by Pete Brush. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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