As Central Connecticut State University comes under scrutiny of its handling of numerous sexual misconduct complaints by faculty and students against one of its professors, several attorneys believe the school should brace for lawsuits from alleged victims.
As new details emerge from the investigation into associate theater professor Joshua Perlstein’s alleged misconduct going back more than a decade, critics say the school failed to follow proper protocol in reporting the allegations. It put Perlstein on paid administrative leave—but only after the university’s newspaper in April detailed the allegations of several woman.
Attorneys who spoke to the Connecticut Law Tribune on Wednesday said they’re surprised no lawsuits have been filed, and speculate that the window to sue might have closed for many of Perlstein’s abusers.
“It’s an extraordinary Title IX violation,” said longtime New Haven attorney John Williams, of the Law Office of John R. Williams & Associates. “The university has an obligation to monitor the conduct of faculty and other students. A case like this is blatant, and the fact that the university appears to have done next to nothing means the university is liable to those victims.”
Also likely to play against the college: WFSB-TV reported there were 168 pages of complaints from at least five separate women dating back more than a decade. Other reports say CCSU took little or no action when it was presented with the professor’s alleged misconduct.
“The university was required to act,” Williams said. “They apparently did not, and that is indefensible. If a lawsuit was filed, [the plaintiff] would have a great case.”
The timeline of events is fuzzy, but the university’s own documents show a litany of complaints dating back to at least 2005. About two months after the school newspaper broke the story, CCSU appeared to make a good-faith gesture. It announced this week that it had brought in the powerhouse law firm Shipman & Goodwin to review thousands of pages of documents.
The law firm, which is more than 90 years old and has 170 attorneys in offices throughout Connecticut and in New York and Washington, D.C., also interviewed more than a dozen people, according to press reports. The investigation is being headed by partner Lisa Banatoski Mehta, who did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
CCSU’s attorneys might be silent, but other lawyers say the university is likely in mitigation mode, especially if alleged incidents fall within the statute of limitations.
“If you have a student who has been sexually harassed within the three-year time period to file suit, and they can show the university had known about this and should have protected them from the harm posed to them and did not do that, then they have a good case,” said attorney Deb McKenna, of the Hayber Law Firm.
Plaintiffs might bring suit under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender by CCSU and other educational institutions receiving federal funds. Observers say they’d also likely rely on legal precedent in which federal courts have interpreted sexual harassment and sexual assault to mean gender discrimination.
“You are entitled under Title IX to go to school and to be treated equally and have an equal experience,” said attorney Courtney George, of Cohen & Wolf’s Bridgeport offices. “If harassment exists, that will prevent you from enjoying the same education benefits from others not experiencing that harassment. That is not right.”
CCSU’s current president, Zulma Toro, expressed concern about the accusations. She said she would have handled the situation differently.
“It is likely that we will never know, or understand, all the circumstances that led some of the past decisions that were made in reference to professor Joshua Perlstein,” Toro wrote in a statement provided to the Connecticut Law Tribune. “After reading documents recently discovered as part of our investigation into professor Perlstein, I fully believe there are a number of incidents in which I would have handled quite differently had I been leading the university at the time.”
But the university said a collective bargaining agreement prohibits it from taking certain actions against Perlstein, who is now on administrative leave.
Perlstein declined to comment. He is a member of CSU-AAUP or the Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors. He has also been with the faculty for 23 years, according to the university’s website.
But Williams, a 50-year attorney whose practice includes sexual misconduct cases, disagreed on the scope and impact of the union provisions.
“The collective bargaining agreement does not mean they cannot do anything,” Williams said. “All it means is that in an instance like this, allegations are made and you have a right to put someone on administrative leave while you investigate. If you are able to corroborate the allegations, you have to give that person an opportunity to come in and tell their side of the story. If disciplinary action is taken, they then have a right under the collective bargaining agreement to appeal.”
Other attorneys say the university did too little.
In one case, CCSU told the professor to stay away from a student who alleged Perlstein made unwanted sexual advances in 2005.
“Their response … was not a sufficient or effective response,” said McKenna, who specializes in sex harassment and discrimination cases. “By saying that, you are not making sure the harassment is not happening again.”
McKenna said she understands why none of the accusers filed suit.
“Many students are young people who are just starting out in their lives,” she said. “I think it is sometimes harder for those folks to come forward. It’s a scary process if one is told there is not a lot of institutional support for you. It then takes a lot of courage to come forward and file a lawsuit.”
Janice Palmer, the school’s media relations officer, said, “The university is focused on attaining a deeper understanding of the facts and how they unfolded and is looking forward to a full report from outside counsel.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct a phrase that incorrectly summarized university spokesperson Janice Palmer’s statement.