Sanford Heisler Sharp Files Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Lawsuit against Harvard

Complaint Details Long History of Abuse in the Famed Anthropology Department

Media Contact: Jamie Moss, newsPRos, 201 493-1027; jamie@newspros.com

(Cambridge, MA, Feb. 8, 2022) Sanford Heisler Sharp today filed a Complaint in Massachusetts federal court against Harvard University and the President and Fellows of Harvard College (“Harvard” or the “University”). The Complaint alleges that Harvard willfully ignored nearly a decade of sexual harassment and retaliation by tenured Anthropology Department professor John Comaroff.

The firm represents Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava, who are graduate students in Harvard’s Anthropology Department. The Complaint details that Harvard ignored numerous warning signs, including prior Title IX complaints, which enabled Professor Comaroff, one of the world’s leading anthropologists, to sexually harass Ms. Kilburn and to upend the careers of Ms. Czerwienski, Ms. Kilburn, and Ms. Mandava.

Harvard’s Indifference to Protecting Students

The Complaint alleges that Professor Comaroff repeatedly and forcibly kissed Ms. Kilburn, groped her in public, graphically and bizarrely imagined her rape and murder aloud, cut her off from other professors, and derailed her degree progress. The Complaint further contends that Ms. Czerwienski and Ms. Mandava reported Professor Comaroff to Harvard and sought to warn other students about him. Significantly, the Complaint details how Harvard watched and did nothing as Professor Comaroff retaliated, in part, by ensuring that Ms. Czerwienski and Ms. Mandava would have “trouble getting jobs.” As a result, all three plaintiffs were forced to radically alter their academic trajectories and delay the pursuit of their degrees, the Complaint says.

All three plaintiffs lodged Title IX complaints with Harvard’s Office for Dispute Resolution. But, after an ordeal that lasted more than a year in which the plaintiffs invested substantial time, identified numerous witnesses, and produced voluminous documentary evidence to prove their allegations, the University issued limited findings that downplayed the gravity of the conduct alleged: Harvard found that Professor Comaroff’s alleged graphic imagining of Ms. Kilburn’s rape violated Title IX and that his alleged threats to Ms. Mandava violated its policies on faculty conduct. But Harvard failed to issue any finding on Ms. Czerwienski’s charge of retaliation and Ms. Kilburn’s charges that Professor Comaroff kissed her, groped her, and derailed her degree. All of this, Plaintiffs allege, was due to failings in Harvard’s Title IX process, which is designed to protect star faculty and allow Harvard to downplay credible accounts of sexual misconduct.

“The message sent by Harvard’s actions alleged in the Complaint is clear: students should shut up. It is the price to pay for a degree,” said Russell Kornblith, Partner and General Counsel at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel to the plaintiffs. “The findings that Harvard did make in this case are the tip of the iceberg. Our Complaint sets out a long history of Harvard’s failure to protect students, and we look forward to showing that pattern in court and before a jury,” Mr. Kornblith added.

A History of Sexual Misconduct In Harvard’s Anthropology Department

The Complaint describes a pattern of sexual misconduct and retaliation in the Anthropology Department dating back over a decade and involving past chairs of the department. Because of Harvard’s arcane rules and the excessive burdens of Harvard’s Title IX process on students, the Complaint contends, prominent faculty have been able to escape examination and continue abusive behavior unrestrained.

The Complaint cites a 2021 internal report by Harvard’s Anthropology Department, which identified a “longstanding pattern of sexism, misogyny, and sexual and gender-based misconduct” that “has gone largely unchecked by a predominantly white, male faculty.” The report concluded that Harvard has condoned a “culture in which the abuse of power is normalized and accommodated.” According to the Complaint, this internal investigation came on the heels of news reports about failures within Harvard’s Title IX office to investigate unwanted sexual contact from faculty.

“Harvard must take complaints of harassment and retaliation seriously,” said Carolin Guentert, Senior Litigation Counsel at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for the plaintiffs. Many students are deterred from reporting abuse by the threats of career-ending retaliation. We believe that’s exactly what happened in this case,” Ms. Guentert said.

Harvard Faculty Retaliate Against Students For Filing Complaints

All three plaintiffs allege that after they made complaints, they found themselves isolated in their academic fields. Academics rely on networks of scholars to review their work and offer mentorship and advice. In this context, a senior professor—particularly of the global stature of Professor Comaroff—exerts virtually total control over a doctoral candidate’s career. As one Harvard Professor explained, “a poor letter of recommendation torpedoes job prospects.” This power, Plaintiffs allege, allowed Professor Comaroff to repeatedly silence accusers and rally faculty to his side.

Indeed, just days after the University’s minimal discipline against Professor Comaroff was announced, 38 members of Harvard’s faculty signed a letter that they were “dismayed by Harvard’s sanctions” against their “excellent colleague” who was simply giving “advice intended to protect an advisee from sexual violence.”

This so-called “advice” was anything but: According to the Complaint, Professor Comaroff “graphically described varying ways in which Ms. Kilburn ‘would’ be raped, murdered, or ‘left for dead’ in South Africa—a country thousands of miles away from the country she studied.”

“The latest letter appears to dismiss serious claims of sexual harassment based on scholarly reputation, branding our client a liar in the process. It demonstrates the immense influence that leading scholars exercise, including the power they exert over the careers of their students,” said Sean Ouellette, Associate at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for the plaintiffs.

The Lawsuit

The Complaint asserts that Harvard’s conduct violates Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act, and Massachusetts’s prohibition on sexual harassment in educational institutions. The Complaint also alleges that Harvard was negligent in its supervision and retention of Professor John Comaroff; that Harvard committed breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; and that Harvard violated Massachusetts law by obtaining and disseminating Ms. Kilburn’s therapy records without her consent. The Complaint requests a jury trial.

About Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP

Sanford Heisler Sharp is a national public interest class-action litigation law firm with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, and Baltimore. Sanford Heisler Sharp focuses on employment discrimination, Title IX, wage and hour, whistleblower, criminal/sexual violence, and financial services matters. The firm has recovered over $1 billion for its clients through many verdicts and settlements. The National Law Journal recognized Sanford Heisler Sharp as 2021 Employment Rights Firm of the Year and 2021 Human Rights Firm of the Year. Benchmark Litigation recognized the Firm as 2020 and 2021 Labor & Employment Firm of the Year.

For the latest news about Sanford Heisler Sharp, visit the firm’s newsroom or follow the firm on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.

If you have potential legal claims and are seeking counsel, please call 646-681-7373 or email david.sanford@sanfordheisler.com. Attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp would like to have the opportunity to help you.

Categories