A civil lawsuit filed by Monica Miller, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies, against Lehigh University could head to trial Jan. 21, 2020. The lawsuit alleges unlawful discrimination and retaliation against Lehigh University. (Megan Burke/B&W Staff)

Trial date set for Monica Miller lawsuit

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A civil lawsuit alleging unlawful discrimination and retaliation against Lehigh University could head to trial Jan. 21, 2020.

Monica Miller, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies, filed her lawsuit in federal court on March 7. She alleges she was continuously sexually harassed by James Peterson, the former director of Africana studies, for three years since she was hired in 2013. Peterson was placed on leave in November 2017 and resigned in January 2018.  

Miller alleges the university dismissed her reports of harassment in an effort to maintain the university’s reputation as one of diversity, in light of monitoring from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after incidents of racial hostility on campus. The lawsuit claims Lehigh made Miller a “sacrificial lamb to its own racial agenda.” In order to cover up for Peterson’s departure, Lehigh made Miller “the substitute black faced figurehead,” the lawsuit alleges, which also claims Miller was forced to take on Peterson’s job responsibilities after he was placed on leave. 

Miller and Peterson are both black. Miller is still employed at the university. 

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania set a trial date for Jan. 21, 2020. The judge did leave open the possibility for summary judgment, if either party requests it. A summary judgment is when the judge rules on the case instead of a jury. If no summary judgment is requested, a jury will be selected.

If either party requests a summary judgment, that ruling will be made by Dec. 6. An amended trial deadline will then occur if any portion of the case survives summary judgment, since the judge doesn’t have to rule on the entire case even if summary judgment is requested.

Lori Friedman, Lehigh’s director of media relations, did not respond to a request for comment.

Miller is seeking actual and punitive damages, as well as pay and benefits from the extra job responsibilities Lehigh allegedly forced Miller to take on. The suit claims that Miller was not compensated for her new duties.

About two weeks after the lawsuit was made public, Lehigh students held a silent protest on Packer Avenue to urge accountability from university for its alleged handling of Miller’s case and sexual harassment on campus in general.

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5 Comments

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    “…as well as pay and benefits from the extra job responsibilities Lehigh allegedly forced Miller to take on. The suit claims that Miller was not compensated for her new duties.” Note to graduating students in the private sector: be ready to take on duties that you will not be compensated for.

    • Robert, you do have a valid point, as I too can attest to having to take on additional responsibilities at work for which I may not have been compensated. However, I think you’re making a false analogy that unfairly undercuts Dr. Miller’s claims. The graduating students to whom you refer will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree and entering entry level jobs, where it’s commonly understood and expected for new these new employees to jump in and take whatever projects they can get their hands on, even if that means longer hours and no increased pay. Dr. Miller graduated with her bachelor’s degree more than 15 years ago in 2004 and has since earned both a Master of Theological Studies in 2006 and a Ph.D. in Theology, Ethics, and Human Science in 2010, and is now an Associate Professor (the second most senior tier of in-classroom academic at Lehigh, second only to full professor). In other words, she’s earned her keep. She has two advanced degrees and is a tenured professor, which carries weight in academia (and beyond). I’m not saying that professors should not be expected to pitch in where needed from time to time, but Monica Miller isn’t at the same level as a graduating student with an entry level degree and job.

      • Amy Charles ‘89 on

        Yeah, no. This thing where you get the kids to knock themselves out to “prove they’re eager” is garbage. It’s just exploitation. If they’re working, then pay them. It’s bad for older workers, too, because why pay someone who actually knows how to do the job when for the same money you can hire three kids and run them till two of them drop?

        The mailroom is gone. You’re not going to be working your way up like you’re in a Broadway musical because you’re an eager beaver with jaunty elbows and the boss likes the cut of your jib. If you show you’re willing to work for free, that’s what you’ll get, especially if you’re a woman or a POC.

    • Amy Charles ‘89 on

      No, Robert. Faculty have contracts. If they’re asked to teach more courses than provided for in the contracts, they’re generally to be paid an overload stipend. That’s standard. Faculty normally work 60-80 hours a week, and if they’re pre-tenure, as I think Miller is? then it’s generally closer to 80.

      The idea of “paying your dues” evaporated along with any corporate sense of social responsibility in the 1980s. There is no point in paying dues to an organization that views you as instantly disposable. And unless you have a reason for not seeking reasonable compensation for your work, of course you shouldn’t work for free. You’re at work to work, not to volunteer for someone else’s bottom line.

      Women and POC especially should avoid working for free, because they’ll be burdened with such requests disproportionately — because the bosses think they can get away with it. Women in academia have had to shove back hard against giant service assignments that interfere with research; tenure and promotion time rolls around and they get denied for not having done enough research while carrying two people’s worth of service work and generally “being a dear.”

  2. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    What you write is true, but I was not using an analogy; I was warning new graduates because they may not have seen such things before. As a young graduate I was enthusiastic about doing anything different, as seemed to be the case with most young workers that I encountered who didn’t suffer from laziness.

    Ms. Millers situation may be similar to that of a bureaucracy or union where rules “rule”. If a jury trial occurs, I am sure that the plaintiff’s lawyers will be looking for union members or government workers while trying to avoid those who take extreme pride in their jobs.

    Ms. Miller has a right to feel abused but it may not rise to the level of illegality. Time will tell.

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