New developments about the lawsuit between Christine Feit, a former certified medical assistant at Lehigh’s health center, and the university have emerged in the past few weeks.
Title IX Coordinator Karen Salvemini and Ric Hall, the vice president for Student Affairs, said the university’s external investigation did not corroborate Feit’s allegations of harassment and discrimination, in a Sept. 13 email to the campus community.
“An independent external investigation, based upon extensive interviews and a review of the Health and Wellness Center’s records, found no evidence of misconduct or inappropriate contact by Dr. Novak with students,” the email said. “Similarly, there is no evidence of any behavior that endangered students, violated patient examination and patient care policies, or that did not comport with the Center’s standards of care.”
The lawsuit alleged the university did nothing when Feit complained to administration of harassment by former interim director of the health center, Thomas Novak, and proceeded to retaliate against Feit for her complaints. The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on May 23 and made public on May 30.
The Sept. 13 email also said Novak remains on leave. A May 31 email to the campus community, sent one day after Feit’s lawsuit was made public, said Novak was placed on leave and barred from campus.
“We plan to defend the allegations against the University as outlined in the suit,” Lori Friedman, Lehigh’s director of media relations, said in the May 31 email.
At the time of publication, Novak was still listed on the staff page for Lehigh’s health center.
Friedman said in an email the investigation was conducted by Elliott Greenleaf, “a law firm with extensive experience conducting internal investigations for various organizations, including higher education.”
The campus community will be updated when the process is finalized, she said in an email to The Brown and White.
“As a matter of policy, the full report will not be made public,” she said in an email.
Friedman declined to answer whether Novak was being paid while suspended from campus.
The Lehigh University Police Department has never received a complaint against Novak engaging in inappropriate behavior, Chief Jason Schiffer said.
However, Deirdre Kamber Todd, the attorney representing Feit, said “the investigation has come under question,” and she has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board that the investigator was “not in fact neutral.”
Lehigh filed a motion to dismiss Feit’s lawsuit on Aug. 29, based largely on the argument that Feit did not file her complaints in a timely matter. Nancy Conrad, the attorney representing the university, argued Feit’s complaint to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission on Nov. 7, 2017, was beyond the 180-day statute for which the PHRC investigates an individual’s allegations.
Feit was terminated on May 4, 2017. She jointly filed her complaints with the PHRC and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which both issued notices to Feit that her complaints were not timely.
The university also argued Feit’s lawsuit failed to show a causal link between her complaints of sexual harassment, which were dispersed throughout her nine-year tenure at the university, and her termination.
Todd said a staff member who experienced sexual harassment might stay at the school or place of work “simply to address a problem and try to solve it from within.”
Conrad deferred to Friedman when reached for comment.
Todd maintained in her Sept. 11 response to Lehigh’s dismissal motion that Feit had obtained a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC and said she had complied with all requests made by both the PHRC and EEOC in a timely manner.
She said she hopes the judge will rule on Lehigh’s motion to dismiss quickly.
“Am I surprised that they filed (the motion to dismiss)? No, because the initial response to this entire matter since day one without any investigation was that this didn’t occur,” Todd said. “They never considered the possibility that it was true.”
Todd said an organization has a responsibility to take steps when a problem arises, but Lehigh’s response was to “ignore the problem, to pretend to address it without addressing it.”
“Christine Feit filed an original agency report some time before her court filing occurred. So they knew about the allegations at a minimum dating back to the first day that she filed her concerns with the EEOC and PHRC. And they chose to suspend him only when the case went public,” Todd said. “Why did this latest investigation take so long to be initiated? You’d have to ask yourself, you can do the math on when the university responded and how they responded. Look at their response… ‘We will defend against this case.’ And that gives you everything you need to know about what happened in this case.”
Feit, who was hired in 2008, alleged Novak began to make sexual comments toward her beginning in 2009.
Feit also alleged Novak would inappropriately perform breast exams on students, and she “always had to hand Novak gloves during pelvic exams because he would attempt to proceed without them as protocol.”
Feit alleged she reported Novak to Human Resources in 2012 and met with Lehigh’s Director of Employee Relations and Workplace Learning & Performance Judith Zavalydriga, who did not return request for comment for this article. The lawsuit stated Zavalydriga, Feit and Novak had a meeting, which led to Novak tearfully apologizing and Feit saying she did not want to see him terminated “because he was allegedly the sole provider for his family.”
Within one month of the 2012 meeting, Novak continued his sexual harassment of Feit, according to the lawsuit.
Feit alleged she reported Novak to HR once more in 2016 and met with Linda LeFever, an associate in Lehigh’s Human Resources department, in April 2016. When Novak began to cry in this meeting, LeFever allegedly stopped the meeting without ever rescheduling despite Feit’s alleged attempts to do so.
When reached for comment, LeFever deferred to Friedman, as did General Counsel, Hall and Salvemini.
The lawsuit stated Feit discovered in April 2017 that the dosage for a student’s allergy injection was incorrect on his chart, but Feit had administered the injection based on this incorrect information. When she discovered the error, she immediately reported it, according to the lawsuit, and the student had no adverse reaction.
Court documents stated Feit’s supervisor, Adriane Stasurak, wrote Feit up for causing the error. On May 4, Feit was terminated after a meeting with Zavalydriga and Stasurak.
Feit alleged gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and alleged her termination was in response to her complaints of sexual harassment against Novak.
Todd emphasized the importance of students speaking up if they saw or went through an inappropriate situation, and she said it might be hard for students since they may not know right from wrong.
“If any student has experienced anything that they felt uncomfortable about, certainly as it relates to the health center, we would hope that students would come forward,” she said. “And I think that really has to be the thrust of this message. If there are safety concerns, they need to be addressed. It is heartbreaking to consider the students being subjected to such acts. If they occurred with the knowledge of the university… that’s even worse.”
This report was compiled by The Brown and White’s Investigative Team. If you wish to talk about an experience or uncomfortable situation with a professional, there are resources available at the university, including Lehigh’s Title IX coordinator or Counseling Center.