Weber State University campus

Students take a group walking tour of the Weber State University campus in Ogden during a freshman orientation in 2014. 

OGDEN — Attorneys for Weber State University and a former psychology student have engaged in settlement talks over her lawsuit claiming the institution downplayed and obstructed her allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against a professor.

The woman, identified as Jane Doe in the U.S. District Court suit filed May 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City, alleges she was subjected to racial and sex discrimination, sexual harassment and misconduct over a six-year period beginning in 2011.

Last year, university spokesperson Allison Hess said the woman's complaints were fairly addressed. The Utah Attorney General's Office filed a motion seeking the suit's dismissal, but Judge Tena Campbell on Jan. 5 denied the motion, saying the woman "has asserted a plausible claim for relief under Title IX."

The case then entered a potential settlement phase in February. But on March 30, Brian K. Jackson, the woman's attorney, filed a motion asking that settlement talks be postponed and that the court order Weber State to answer the suit.

Jackson said he and his client have determined that "settlement discussions would not be meaningful at this point this early in the case based on (the woman's) expectations and the state’s settlement restrictions under Utah Code."

State law dictates that a settlement of $100,000 or more requires the governor's approval, and more than $500,000, the Legislature's.

Campbell on Wednesday granted Jackson's motion and ordered Weber State to answer the suit within 21 days.

The suit details alleged indifference, obstruction and insufficient university response to the woman's complaints about alleged actions of the psychology professor from 2013-17.

During that period, the woman took classes from the professor and was a patient in his private counseling practice, according to the suit.

She said the professor approached her on campus in 2013 and offered to provide her therapy to help her cope with problems she had experienced on campus.

The woman said she had complained in 2011 to a department chair, the university's Title IX compliance office and the dean of students about an incident in which she felt a professor had prodded her about her Mexican heritage. In the suit, she said her complaint was unfairly discounted and dismissed by those officials.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education institutions receiving federal funds.

In her counseling with the professor in 2013, she alleged he placed his hands on her ribcage as part of the therapy. The man also was aware that she still suffered from trauma due to sexual abuse as a child, the suit said. 

She alleged their therapy sessions escalated in 2014 to hugging and a "mindfulness" exercise that involved "intimate physical touch," according to the suit.

During spring 2015, the woman alleged, the professor massaged her gluteal area and at that point she stopped the therapy. That fall, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and asked him for help with the pain, she said.

During therapy in late 2015 and early 2016 he made inappropriate comments, such as telling her "at least she would get a boob job" out of the cancer, and during therapy touched her abdomen, thighs and breast, she alleged. 

The professor, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was reached by phone Monday. He said he was on vacation and would refer questions to his attorney. The attorney was not identified.

The woman said she confronted the professor in December 2017 about his therapy techniques and ethics. She then complained to the university counseling center and allegedly was told she needed to file a complaint herself with the Title IX office.

She filed a report with the Ogden Police Department in March 2018, and in November of that year, the Davis County Attorney's Office determined no charges would be filed in the case.

During the university's investigation of her complaint, the professor submitted her class assignments "to falsely claim (she) had a personality disorder and was a hypersexualized individual," according to the lawsuit.

The suit also quotes from a May 2, 2019, report by a Utah Attorney General's Office investigator that concluded the professor's conduct toward the woman "was more than likely unwelcome (and) was more than likely severe (and) ran the risk of creating a hostile environment."

The actions violated the university's discrimination and harassment policy, the report concluded, according to the lawsuit.

A follow-up report by an assistant attorney general concluded the professor violated a policy that "clearly precludes amorous or sexual relationships where there exists a power imbalance in the relationship," the lawsuit said.

In addition, that report quoted alleged recorded comments in which the professor acknowledged his therapeutic relationship with the woman "got too close." He said further that "there were feelings of arousal for both of us" and that the contacts "felt inappropriate."

The investigator concluded, "It is more likely than not that (the professor) had an amorous relationship with (the woman), a relationship that presents a clear conflict of interest with his role as therapist and faculty member."

The university provost recommended the tenured professor be placed on leave without pay for one year, the suit said, a result that the woman objected to and then found that if she wanted to act on it, she would have to file a formal charge with the Faculty Board of Review.

"She had to prosecute the case, including additional allegations of other individuals from the counseling center," the suit said.

The board ultimately determined the discipline against the professor was insufficient and that termination was required, according to the suit.

WSU's Hess said the professor resigned Jan. 15, 2020.

The university, she said, "was not deliberately indifferent to the student and her complaint. The university provides a process for responding to Title IX claims, which includes investigating complaints, allowing both parties to provide input and evidence to investigators, and providing them with the opportunity to be heard before a hearing committee with full rights of due process."

"The process was followed in this case," Hess said in May 2020 in response to the suit's filing.

Darin Goff, an assistant state attorney general representing Weber State, did not respond to a request for comment about the settlement talks.

The suit asks the court to award the woman monetary damages and order the university to stop discriminatory conduct, revise its policies regarding conflicts of interest and how harassment and sexual misconduct complaints are handled and reported. 

The federal Office of Women's Health says one in five women in college experiences sexual assault.

Sexual assault on college campuses is a common problem that often goes unreported, according to the agency. It includes any unwanted sexual activity, from unwanted touching to rape.

The Davis County woman's attorney, Jackson, also represented a former Weber State chemistry professor in a 2018 U.S. District Court case in which the professor unsuccessfully alleged he unfairly lost his job after a sexual harassment investigation against him.

Former Standard-Examiner reporter Megan Olsen contributed to this story.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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