Appalachian School of Law, Grundy Virginia

 

A former professor at the Appalachian School of Law has sued the school, claiming it failed to protect her when she was harassed by a male student.

Hillary Lynne Burgess’ 62-page complaint, filed Monday in the U.S District Court for the Western District of Virginia, contains a myriad claims against the school and three of its administrators. It alleges that Appalachian violated Title IX procedures in its investigation of the student’s alleged harassment of her and other staff and students at the school, retaliated against her for raising the alarm over him, and eventually let him off the hook without punishment. (Title IX is the federal law that protects students and school employees from sex discrimination, harassment and assault.) Burgess, who was an assistant visiting professor at the school in Grundy, Virginia, also alleges that the problem student raped another school staff member and suggests that he may have had a role in a classmate’s suicide.

Additionally, Burgess claims that the school sexually discriminated against her by requiring her to assume extra administrative work related to the school’s American Bar Association reaccreditation bid that male colleagues were exempt from, then failed to pay her the agreed-to additional compensation.

“[Appalachian] failed to take immediate, effective remedial steps to resolve professor Burgess’ complaints of discrimination and harassment and, instead, retaliated against her for making these complaints by acting with deliberate indifference toward professor Burgess and her legitimate complaints,” reads the complaint, which also names interim law dean Sandra Keen McGlothlin, director Patricia Deel and Title IX coordinator Jina Sauls as defendants.

Vijay Mago, an attorney with Richmond firm O’Hagan Meyer who is representing the school, said officials had not yet been served with the complaint and had no comment.

Burgess is represented by Thomas Strelka, of the Roanoke, Virginia, firm Strelka Law Office. He said in an interview Friday that Appalachian didn’t have the procedures and training necessary to comply with Title IX.

“Title IX has specific, black-and-white things schools must do, and as indicated in our complaint, [Appalachian] didn’t do them,” Strelka said. “Title IX is mandatory. If you take those federal dollars, you’ve got to do these things.”

The bulk of Burgess’ lawsuit centers on the conduct of her alleged harasser, who is referred to as John Doe, and Appalachian’s response—or alleged lack thereof—to her complaints about him. (The complaint clarifies that it is not naming Doe in an effort to protect his educational privacy and to prevent him from further targeting Burgess.) The student was so threatening that Burgess claims she and her family fled Grundy and that she taught her classes remotely in an attempt to avoid him.

Burgess was on the faculty of Charlotte School of Law, but spent the 2015-16 academic year as a visiting assistant professor at Appalachian, according to her suit. Her problems with Doe began in September 2015, when he became “increasing aggressive and disruptive” in her class. He would talk over her, make rude and disruptive comments and badmouth her to other students, she alleges. She claims Doe targeted her because she is a woman, and she became more concerned when he repeatedly mentioned his ownership of firearms. (In 2002, a former Appalachian student shot and killed the dean, a professor, and a student, and wounded three other students at the law school.)

Burgess said she complained numerous times to administrators throughout the year about Doe’s behavior, but no action was taken until April, when the school agreed to post security outside her classroom, but failed to follow through, according to the complaint. That same month, Burgess claims a law school staff member told her that Doe had raped her, and that Burgess discovered Doe had also groped and sexually battered other law students.

One of Doe’s classmates also committed suicide in April, and Burgess alleges that she had witnessed Doe bullying the classmate, further fueling her safety concerns.

Burgess claims officials dragged their feet in opening an official Title IX investigation into Doe’s conduct, and that when they eventually did, it was “completely, and inexcusably, mismanaged.”

Once the school informed Doe of their investigation, Burgess and her family “immediately fled to an undisclosed location,” and she taught remotely. Though she requested that the school not disclose her location to Doe, it did so on numerous occasions throughout the Title IX investigation in retaliation for her filing a complaint, she claims.

When the school eventually held a Title IX hearing in May 2016, Burgess alleges she was not given adequate time to find an adviser, gather evidence and prepare her testimony, unlike Doe, who had an adviser present. The evidence presented was incomplete and incorrect, she claims. Doe was found “responsible” for Title IX violations regarding other students, but not Burgess. Doe was ordered to attend three hours of sexual misconduct training. He appealed that finding, claiming Burgess had initiated a “smear campaign” against him, and it was reversed, Burgess’ lawsuit claims.

Burgess says she suffered anxiety, panic attacks, hair loss, insomnia and numerous other physical ailments throughout the school year, and was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She was “constructively discharged or terminated” from Appalachian’s faculty in August 2016, according to the complaint. Strelka said she was not formally fired by Appalachian. She could not continue to teach there with Doe present, he said, and is not currently teaching.

Burgess is seeking reinstatement to the faculty, back pay, and compensatory and punitive damages.