On February 17, the United States District Court of Minnesota held a preliminary hearing on the case brought by Kristin Naca, a former English professor, against Macalester College. This hearing was in response to Macalester’s motion to dismiss Naca’s lawsuit in its entirety. Judge Patrick J. Schiltz dismissed certain elements of Naca’s case, but allowed others to be heard at a later hearing.
Naca’s original lawsuit claimed that her September 2015 firing constituted “discriminatory and retaliatory termination” on the basis of “her systemic Valley Fever, her sincere practice of the religion of Santería, sex, sexual orientation, and her Filipina and Puerto Rican ancestry and national origin.”
The college maintains that it fired Naca for an innapropriate relationship with a student that violated a Title IX statue. Naca claims that the relationship took place after the student had graduated and thus did not violate Macalester policy.
Peter J. Nickitas represented Naca, the plaintiff, while Sean Somermeyer of the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels represented Macalester, the defendant. Among the audience at the courthouse were Macalester students and alumni.
Of the 35 total claims Naca made against Macalester, Schiltz dismissed all but 12. Many of the claims were dismissed due to faulty legal reasoning or lack of evidence.
Schiltz denied Naca’s claim that Macalester created a hostile workplace environment, as well as her claim related to disparate impact discrimination. He allowed claims concerning the school’s failure to accommodate Naca’s disability; discriminatory termination based on religion, sexual orientation, sex and race; breach of contract; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Schiltz stipulated that the plaintiff should use the coming months for fact-finding in support of the claims left standing. He also stressed the importance of identifying a comparator, someone in Naca’s same situation being treated differently, in the claims of discriminatory discharge.
The lawsuit names Professor Terry Boychuk as a comparator because he was granted tenure despite the college receiving “multiple harassment complaints by then-incumbent Macalester students during his tenure review.” Boychuk was granted tenure while Naca was fired.
The college argued that Boychuk is not a valid comparator because the suit does not specify what kind of harassment complaints students brought against him, nor when the students claimed the harassment occurred.
Judge Schiltz agreed with Naca’s claim that Boychuk is a valid comparator, but called the claim, as it’s plead, “very, very weak.” He agreed with Somermeyer that the claim lacked evidence.
Schiltz warned Naca and Nickitas that their claim as it stood would likely not hold up further in court, and that they should obtain more facts about the accusations against Boychuk before the next hearing.
Schiltz limited the plaintiff’s investigation to Boychuk as a comparator going forward. She will not be able to name any other professors as comparators in further developments in the case.
Thus, whether or not Naca’s claim of discriminatory termination will succeed in trial is largely dependent on her ability to provide evidence related to Boychuk’s tenure review.
Boychuk did not respond to The Mac Weekly’s request for comment.
Schiltz also granted the plaintiff’s claim of failure to accommodate her disability. Somermeyer claimed that “anyone would like office assistants and a lighter course load,” arguing that Naca did not specify that she needed these accommodations in order to continue teaching.
Schiltz disagreed, saying that Naca implicitly made it clear that “she asked for these things for the purpose of doing her job,” and that her claim was reasonable.
In his closing statements, Nickitas addressed the audience that had gathered in Naca’s support, and thanked them for their “care about the pursuit of justice and truth.”
Naca emphasized her optimism following the hearing.
“I had the opportunity to state my case and to learn about how I need to plead,” Naca said. “I’m pleased that we’re moving forward. We have plenty of work to do.”
Emily Roebuck ’17, one of Naca’s former students, was among those at the hearing to support the plaintiff.
“I really appreciated getting the opportunity to publicly support both Naca and her case, and it was energizing to see so many other community members were by my side,” Roebuck wrote in an email. “I remain hopeful that Naca’s case, while it might be a long and taxing road ahead, will be a pivotal victory for her and for a more just future for faculty and staff at Macalester.”
Somermeyer reaffirmed the college’s position in a statement to The Mac Weekly.
“Macalester is confident that when all the evidence is before the Court, it will agree that those involved with the decision to terminate Naca’s employment were not motivated by unlawful discrimination,” he wrote. “Macalester remains strongly committed to diversity in our hiring and retention practices and to providing a safe learning environment.”
The Mac Weekly will continue reporting on this story as it develops.