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Pseudonym issue could sink woman’s civil suit against Weber State

By Mark Shenefelt - | Nov 18, 2021

BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo

The United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

OGDEN — A Davis County woman’s sexual harassment and misconduct lawsuit against Weber State University is in peril over a dispute about her identity being made public in the court record.

The woman, identified only by the pseudonym Jane Doe in U.S. District Court documents, filed a civil rights suit in May 2020, alleging she was subjected to racial and sex discrimination and sexual harassment and misconduct over a six-year period beginning in 2011. The former psychology student alleged Weber State downplayed and obstructed her complaints against a professor.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Daphne Oberg in Salt Lake City ruled last month that the woman had not adequately shown that she could be “in danger of physical harm” if her name was disclosed. Oberg said the woman presented no evidence, other than her allegation that she is a sexual assault victim, in her request to use a pseudonym. The judge said that while she was sympathetic to the woman’s desire to remain anonymous, her privacy interests don’t outweigh the public’s interest in open court proceedings.

The judge said Weber State, those involved in the Title IX investigation at issue and the professor already know her identity because she filed several complaints about the professor and reported him to her church, the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing and law enforcement. Because she no longer attends the university, “there can be no risk of retaliation or differential treatment,” the judge said.

Since that ruling, the woman’s lawyer has refiled the lawsuit under the woman’s real name. Then, the Utah Attorney General’s Office — which had filed the motion challenging the pseudonym — lodged a new motion seeking the outright dismissal of the case on procedural grounds. The AG’s office, which is defending Weber State in the suit, argues the suit should be dismissed because the woman’s attorney did not make a required request to proceed pseudonymously before he originally filed the suit.

The court has given the woman’s attorney until Nov. 26 to respond to that motion. If the motion is granted, the suit will be dead.

Litigation on the case resumed last spring after the Attorney General’s Office made a settlement offer to the woman, which was rejected.

The suit quoted from a May 2, 2019, report by an 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.”

After the university provost recommended the tenured professor be put on leave without pay for one year, the woman objected and filed a formal complaint with the Faculty Board of Review. The board ultimately determined the discipline against the professor was insufficient and that termination was required, according to the suit.

The professor resigned on Jan. 15, 2020, according to the suit. He was not named as a defendant in the suit and has not responded to requests for comment on the case.

Weber State, the attorney general’s answer to the suit said, “denies any implication that it was required to initiate an investigation into (the professor) before Doe filed her formal complaint.”

The state also served notice it intended to assign fault to the professor. In civil suits, juries often are asked to apportion percentages of fault to any parties thought to be liable.

The woman is not named in this story because the Standard-Examiner does not normally identify victims of sexual assault. The story also does not include the name of the former professor, who is not a defendant and has not been charged with a crime.

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