Former student sues for sexual harassment

A former doctoral student claims she’s entitled to more than $75,000 in damages.

Benjamin Farniok

After filing a lawsuit claiming a hostile work environment in 2013, a former University of Minnesota doctoral student’s case will go to trial Nov. 2.
 
Stephanie Jenkins was researching peregrine falcons in the Alaskan wilderness in the summer of 2011 when her mentor, Ted Swem — a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services researcher on a University-sponsored sabbatical at the time — made unwanted romantic advances toward her. Jenkins reported the issue to her academic adviser that
November and now claims she’s entitled to more than $75,000 in damages.
 
Originally, Jenkins sued her adviser for neglecting her concerns, Swem for sexual harassment and the University for creating a hostile work environment.  Since then, the case against her adviser, David Andersen, was dropped.
 
Jenkins left the University in January 2012 and filed the suit against the school the next year.
 
Though Swem didn’t work for the University, the University was responsible for maintaining Jenkins’ safety, said her attorney, Joe Larson.
 
“She was a student and employee at the University of Minnesota, so the University has an obligation with a safe working environment that is free from sexual harassment,” he said.
 
Of the 10 claims filed against the University — including sexual harassment, assault and negligent infliction of emotional distress — seven were thrown out by the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. The remaining three claims argue the University violated Title VII, which says the plaintiff has to prove the harassment was severe enough to affect his or her work.
 
University General Counsel Bill Donohue said the claim is illegitimate.
 
“The person that engaged in the behavior was a federal employee — he wasn’t our employee. All of the events take place in Alaska,” he said. “The University isn’t notified about this for many months, and when we are notified about it, we promptly investigated it.”
 
Jenkins and Swem went on two 17-day trips to study falcons in Alaska, during which Swem photographed Jenkins’ rear-end and asked about her romantic life, according to the civil complaint. These questions made Jenkins uncomfortable.
 
Between trips, Swem confessed his romantic interest for Jenkins, but she said she wanted to maintain a professional relationship, the complaint said.
 
Though Swem continued to ask Jenkins why she wasn’t interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with him, she continued to spend time with him due to the nature of their work.
 
She discovered she would be sharing an office with Swem when she returned to Minnesota, which eventually led her to seek aid from her academic adviser, according to the complaint.
 
The University’s Office of Human Resources did not contact Swem or Jenkins when they heard about the issue, and the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action responded slowly, Larson said. 
 
Donohue said Jenkins left the University 10 days after the school was notified of the problem.
 
A conference between the University and Jenkins will determine if the case leads to a settlement or a trial, Donohue said, but he said the school intends to argue against the suit in court if a settlement can’t be reached.