Nicknaming A Student ‘Monica’ Carries Sufficient Sexual Overtones To Justify Harassment Lawsuit

byLindy Korn, Esq.

Inbal Hayut v. The State University of New York, State University of New York College at New Paltz, Alex Young, individually, Richard Varbero, individually, Gerald Benjamin, individually, and Lewis Brownstein, individually U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, decided Dec. 18, 2003, 02-9014.

A university professor, who allegedly repeatedly called a student “Monica” and made other comments, alluding to the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal can be sued for sexual harassment, under 1983, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in reversing a summary judgment.

The facts are as follows: The professor allegedly began calling the plaintiff, a political science major, “Monica” because of her resemblance to Monica Lewinsky. He allegedly also made several other remarks during the class, indicating, “be quite, I’ll give you a cigar later,” “how was your weekend with Bill?” and “you are wearing the same color lipstick that Monica wears.”

The student sued under 1983, claiming other male students began to address her similarly, that she stopped watching the news, fearing that new developments in the scandal would lead to more remarks in class and that she stopped going to classes and failed many courses because of the comments.

The Second Circuit held that whether the remarks were severe enough to rise to the level of sexual harassment was an issue of fact for the jury.

“The ‘Monica’ nickname pulled from the headlines covering the contemporaneous Clinton/Lewinsky scandal can readily be understood as having powerful sexual connotations and overtones,” wrote the Second Circuit panel. “Each remark, while brief, was made against a backdrop of classroom discussion and press coverage of the most salacious developments in the scandal. A reasonable jury could find that the Monica statements were more than mere joking comments or occasional vulgar banter, but were sexually charged and designed… to convey certain images of the plaintiff – that she enjoyed the same sexual implements as the real Monica Lewinsky and that she was a willing participant in deviant sexual activity with the professor himself.”

“There is, moreover, evidence in the record that suggests that, by discussing the sordid details of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the professor make Lewinsky the focal point and an object of ridicule of some of his classes. By then directing Monica comments towards the plaintiff he likewise make the plaintiff the object of ridicule,” the court held.

It is interesting to note that the courting its analysis of what is pervasive and severe for purposes of a hostile environment looked at the victim’s psychological well-being as a relevant component, as well as whether the sexually harassing conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance, and whether it unreasonably interfered with the victim’s academic performance.

The court also recognized that the professor’s conduct permeated the classroom atmosphere and set the tone for the whole class, as evidenced by testimony that other males called her “Monica” as had the professor, that this satisfied the pervasiveness requirement for sexual harassment/hostile environment claim.

The fact that the plaintiff was a student and the alleged harasser was her professor created a power disparity. The court found this power disparity to be a basis that a fact finder could reasonably rely on to conclude that the victim’s inaction did not reflect the true impact of the objectionable conduct. Thus, the Second Circuit found that the plaintiff student’s failure to object initially to the comments was potentially excusable.

A professor’s lecture style and emotional behavior and outbursts during the course of teaching can cause intimidation of students, thereby preventing them from complaining. The effect of the power differential and the severity and pervasiveness of the behavior is found in this case, not to be a mathematical calculation, but, taken in its totality, and examination of the reaction that the harassing behavior had on the student and her ability to continue with her educational opportunities.

This case is noteworthy because the context of the media and information about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal was transferred to the classroom by the professor’s behavior. And in that context, the court made its findings.