A male scientist allegedly expressed his interest in having a sexual relationship with a female graduate student on numerous occasions while mentoring her on remote research excursions deep in the woods of Alaska. The student later sued him and the university where she was pursuing a doctorate degree, alleging hostile work environment.
As “Riley” was preparing to enter a PhD program at the University of Minnesota, she accepted an offer to work as a graduate researcher collecting field data on peregrine falcons on the Colville River in Alaska in the summer of 2011. Riley planned to pursue a doctorate degree in Natural Resources and Science Management. The research project was a joint collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, and the university.
Her mentor was “Cameron,” a scientist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, and an expert on peregrine falcons. He was responsible for teaching Riley how to collect and sort data and how to survive in the region.
Cameron and Riley were dropped by plane in an extremely remote area in arctic Alaska that is almost completely uninhabited by humans. During two 17-day research trips, they slept in tents in the harsh conditions—with a shotgun close by in case they encountered a bear.
During the first excursion, Cameron told sexually explicit jokes, asked Riley questions about her personal life, and shared stories of his previous sexual encounters with other graduate students. He bathed in the river in front of her and encouraged her to follow suit.
While staying in Fairbanks in between research excursions, Cameron told Riley that she was attractive and that he wanted a romantic relationship with her. He joked that they should share a tent, and he invited her to sit on his lap and kiss him.
Acknowledging that his behavior could be seen as sexual harassment, in light of his role in the research, he implied that his role could change if they pursued a relationship. Riley repeatedly told him that she wanted only a professional relationship.
Riley’s academic advisor joined them for the first 7 days of the second excursion. Cameron did not tell any sexual jokes or express his interest in a romantic relationship with Riley during that time. However, his behavior resumed after the advisor left. He also encouraged Riley to drink alcohol with him nightly and suggested that they share an entire bottle of whiskey on their last night in the wilderness, but Riley declined.
When the fall semester began, Riley was told that she would share office space with Cameron, who was working at the university for the academic year.
Instead of using that office, though, Riley avoided contact with Cameron by studying and doing her graduate work in coffee shops or libraries. After failing a statistics exam, a counselor told her that she might be suffering from anxiety and stress due to Cameron’s behavior.
In November 2011, Riley talked to her academic advisor about the situation, and he arranged for new office space. However, Riley resigned from the university in January 2012 and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
She filed suit against the university, Cameron, and the advisor. She alleged that Cameron had sexually harassed her and created a hostile work environment in violation of her 14th Amendment rights. Cameron argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity, but the district court ruled in Riley’s favor. Cameron appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which covers Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
What the Court Said
The appeals court affirmed the decision, saying Riley repeatedly declined Cameron’s pursuit of a romantic relationship, did not kiss him or enter his tent, and gave him several explanations for her decision, including his role as a supervisor and their age difference.
Noting that Riley depended on Cameron both for academic instruction and survival in a remote area, the court said “geographic isolation” was an important factor in this case. “Actions that might not rise to the level of severe or pervasive in an office setting take on a different character when the two people involved are stuck together for 24 hours a day with no other people—or means of escape—for miles around.”
Cameron argued that there was no physical conduct of a sexual nature and that “a reasonable public official” would not have known that such conduct was prohibited because the university did not provide him with sexual harassment training, and he was unfamiliar with the university’s sexual harassment policy.
The court was not convinced by those arguments, saying, “A person such as … [Cameron], who has had prior experience working with and supervising students, should be aware that sexual harassment violates a student’s clearly established rights, even in the absence of specific training.”
Jenkins v. The University of Minnesota et al. (No. 15-3273) (U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Cir., 10/3/16).
In this case, the mentor’s lack of sexual harassment training did not excuse his behavior. However, providing such training to all supervisors can help prevent sexual harassment and help protect your organization from liability if it does occur.