In a summary judgment decision dated Sept. 20, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick J. Schiltz dismissed the remainder of former English professor Kristin Naca’s discrimination and wrongful termination suit against Macalester. However, the more than two-and-a-half year legal battle between the two parties is not over just yet: Naca plans to appeal the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Naca originally filed her case against Macalester in December 2016, roughly fourteen months after the college fired her for what it claims was an inappropriate relationship with a student.
Naca asserts that the physical relationship commenced only after the student had graduated and thus did not violate any college policy.
Instead, Naca claims that she was fired because 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.”
She contended that, while she was dismissed, Macalester did not fire straight, white male professors accused of sexual misconduct – identifying sociology professor Terry Boychuk and art and art history professor Stan Sears as two men who kept their jobs despite similar inappropriate behavior.
For several reasons, Schiltz didn’t agree.
Macalester received a number of complaints about Boychuk in the early 2000s, ranging from discomfort with how he discussed the topic of sexual violence in a class to secondhand reports that he had harassed students.
Then, just before he was set to be granted tenure in the spring of 2002, a group of five students sent a letter to then-President Michael McPherson and each member of the board of trustees demanding that he be investigated for sexual harassment.
But none of the letter’s signatories had experienced any harassment themselves, and, after a review process, the board of trustees granted Boychuk tenure and ordered him to undergo sensitivity training.
Schiltz dismissed the notion that Boychuk’s situation was parallel to Naca’s, pointing out both that none of the people who granted Boychuk tenure were involved in terminating Naca and that the conduct Boychuk was accused of is “worlds apart” from what Naca did.
“Simply put,” Schiltz wrote, “the decision of one group of decisionmakers to treat Boychuk favorably – thirteen years before Naca was terminated by a different group of decisionmakers after admitting to much more serious misconduct – does nothing to show that Macalester’s stated basis for Naca’s termination is pretextual.”
Schiltz had similarly little regard for the claim involving Sears, who married a Macalester graduate sometime in the late 1990s several years after she had left the college.
There is no evidence to indicate that Sears and his wife began a sexual relationship during or immediately after her graduation, or that the college ever received a complaint about his conduct.
In fact, throughout his 55-page decision, Schiltz appeared thoroughly unimpressed with Naca’s case – at various points calling arguments of hers “ridiculous,” “much ado about nothing,” “reckless,” and “meritless.”
He had even sharper words for her lead attorney Peter J. Nickitas, whose conduct, he wrote, made it “unusually challenging to determine whether Naca’s version of events is supported by evidence,” and “caused the Court to waste dozens of hours of its time.”
Schiltz later wrote, in denying Naca’s motion to supplement the record after the window to do so had passed, that Nickitas “has a long history of violating the Local Rules of this District, in this case and in others.”
Indeed, Nickitas does have a history of misconduct. He has had his license to practice suspended multiple times in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, most recently in Minnesota for 30 days in 2013 for “harassing and bullying” another attorney.
Despite his previous issues with the court, Nickitas in an interview with The Mac Weekly was contrite in his response to the Court’s criticism.
“Number one, we thank the court for pointing out our areas of disorganization,” he said. “I’m a one-man operation. We take the court’s encouragements for improvement seriously and will try to improve – recognizing that this case has a big record.”
Despite the heavily conservative makeup of the 8th Circuit Court, he feels ready for the appeal.
“I expected a decision in favor of Macalester,” Nickitas said. “And I’ve been preparing ever since oral argument to deal with it.”
Nickitas said he’s confident in his client’s chance to win her appeal, making a point of saying that it “properly belongs to a jury to weigh the facts” of whether Boychuk works as a comparator in the case.
“Due process and protection are not just for accused men,” he argued.
Nickitas would not reveal whether Hlee Vang ’02, who made an accusation of harassment against Boychuk while a student at Macalester and was deposed in this case last year, is still working on Naca’s legal team.
“I speak with her often about the case, and I value her labors in the case,” Nickitas said. “We’ll leave that at that.”
In addition to the discrimination charges, Schiltz also dismissed Naca’s claims of breach of contract and failure to sufficiently accommodate her disability during her final three years at the college.
Of the failure to accommodate charge, Schiltz wrote that Naca’s argument “fail[ed] as a matter of law” – noting that she was granted a number of accommodations, including a lighter laptop and office assistance, and that she admitted herself that she was able to perform the essential duties of her job.
“Naca’s entire claim seems to rest on the mistaken premise that, because she was disabled, she had the right to the precise accommodations that she requested,” Schiltz wrote. “That is plainly not the law.”
“We don’t wish anybody ill,” Macalester President Brian Rosenberg said. “But I think in this case we really felt like it was important that we defend ourselves against accusations of that kind of bias.
“It took a while. But we were pleased with the judge’s decision.”
“We are confident the court’s decision will be upheld, if appealed by Naca,” Sean Somermeyer, one of Macalester’s lead attorneys, wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “In fact, given the complete lack of evidence in her favor, in our view an appeal would be frivolous and could result in additional sanctions.”
“We are hopeful that this lengthy matter can now come to an end.”
Naca has until Oct. 21, 30 days after the summary judgment, to file a notice that she intends to appeal. The Mac Weekly will continue to report on this story as it develops.