Former student’s sexual harassment lawsuit in final stages before trial

Ted Swem allegedly made sexual advancements toward former doctoral student Stephanie Jenkins while conducting research in Alaska in 2011.

Raju Chaduvula

A Minnesota
Court of Appeals decision filed earlier this month could bring a former
University of Minnesota doctoral student’s sexual harassment case closer to
trial after almost a year.

Stephanie
Jenkins sued her mentor, Ted Swem, last fall, after he allegedly made unwanted sexual
advances during a falcon research expedition in the Alaskan wilderness in 2011.

Earlier this
month, the Court of Appeals denied Swem qualified immunity — a rule that government
employees can invoke when their conduct does not violate “clearly established
statutory or constitutional rights.”  

According to
court documents, Swem violated Jenkin’s right to be free from sexual harassment
— a right he should have known is clearly established.  

Swem argued
that he wasn’t aware that sexual comments could amount to harassment. The court
said his reasoning was invalid because unwanted physical contact and comments
are both considered harassment.  

According to
past Minnesota Daily coverage, Swem frequently asked Jenkins about her romantic
life during the research trip, comments that she said made her uncomfortable.

At a dinner,
Swem allegedly told Jenkins that she could sit in his lap and kiss him if she
ever wanted to pursue a relationship with him, according to the documents.

Swem had
allegedly told Jenkins “that his behavior could be construed as sexual
harassment because of the power dynamic, but suggested that his role could be
changed if she was interested in pursuing a relationship,” according to the
documents.

Jenkins’
lawyer, Joe Larson, said Swem has 45 days to take any next steps, like petition
for a rehearing in front of the Court of Appeals, or take the case to a jury
trial.

Jenkins also accused
Swem and the University of Minnesota of creating a hostile work environment — a
Title VII offense.

Former University
General Counsel Bill Donohue previously called her claim against the University
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 told the Daily last year.

Jenkins also
sued her academic advisor — department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation
professor, David Andersen\ — for neglecting her concerns in the first place.
The case against Andersen has since been dropped.

If Swem takes
no action within the next month and a half, the trial will go back to the
District Court of Minnesota, Larson said.

At that point,
a date can be set for the official trial to start, he said.