Yale University Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A former associate professor for Yale University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese has filed a federal lawsuit claiming nonstop sexual harassment and crude comments were aimed at her and others by the department’s acting chairman.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. district court in New Haven, Susan Byrne claims Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria’s alleged behavior was repeatedly ignored by the department’s chair and another professor within the department. To make matters worse, Byrne alleges, top Yale officials knew there was a pattern of discrimination within that department and did nothing about it. The lawsuit alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.

Sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying by Echevarria, the 21-page lawsuit asserts, included him playing with “the hair of undergraduate and graduate students on multiple occasions” to more severe alleged abuse such as making “multiple unsavory comments about the body parts of several female members of the department” to telling Byrne after hip replacement surgery he was looking forward to returning to his “favorite kind of sex, standing up” to directing her to sit in what he called his “love couch” in his office.

Negative statements about Byrne’s research work began soon after she “moved pillows to avoid contact with professor Gonzalez Echevarria’s lap” in October 2014, the suit asserts. It was from that date to February 2015 when Echevarria, department chair Rolena Adorno and department professor Noel Valis began the alleged harassment, the lawsuit maintains. The three “made unsupportive and negative statements regarding plaintiff’s work, she contends. The falsehoods were allegedly propagated in retaliation for plaintiff’s speaking out against discrimination and harassment and to deny plaintiff a full-year sabbatical awarded under Yale University’s tenure-track system to all associate professors on term.”

Jacques J. Parenteau is one of Byrne’s two attorneys.

“It is tragic that a scholar, like our client, who had been declared by her own department to be excellent in the work she did when they promoted her to associate professor [in turn] would be cast out as a victim to the oppression based on her defense of those individuals who were claiming they had been harassed, sexually and otherwise, by senior members of that department,” Parenteau said, referring to Byrne’s going public in February 2015 with accusations at a university forum and other venues. “Top individuals at Yale from the provost down had a chance to correct this injustice and they turned a blind eye,” said Parenteau, a partner with Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau in New London.

Byrne was ultimately denied tenure by a vote of 3-2, and despite a request for top Yale officials to recuse

Echevarria, Adorno and Valis from the tenure vote, they were allowed to take part. Echevarria, Adorno and Valis voted to deny tenure; while two officials from outside the department voted to afford tenure.

“What is the reward for this brave behavior that we’d want to encourage—blowing the whistle when power structures are oppressive?”—said Parenteau. “The reward is the dean comes back and says ‘We don’t have the power to make department members recuse themselves [from tenure vote].’ That is pretty sad.”

Byrne, who began teaching at Yale in July 2008, was terminated in June 2017. “Had tenure been granted, [the] defendant would have been obligated to continue to offer plaintiff employment until retirement,” the lawsuit states.

Echevarria, Adorno and Valis no longer hold their positions within the department. But all three have tenure, and it is believed they are currently working elsewhere at Yale.

The university did conduct a “climate review committee” of Yale and the department in particular. That report was completed in December 2015 but Parenteau told the Connecticut Law Tribune Thursday he has not been given a copy despite repeated requests. “We sought it through FOI (Freedom of Information Act) and they did not provide it. We sought it through appeal and they did not provide it. I am sure it will come out in discovery,” Parenteau said.

The lawsuit seeks Byrne’s reinstatement as associate professor with tenure and punitive damages.

Byrne currently chairs the World Languages and Cultures Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas,

Yale’s Office of Public Affairs & Communications did not respond to a request for comment.

Assisting Parenteau in the case is his colleague, associate Claire M. Howard.