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GMU professor seeks dismissal of woman’s suit
An ex-assistant secretary of the Air Force who has become a George Mason University Law School professor has asked a federal court to throw out a lawsuit by a former female professor who claimed he sexually harassed her and then retaliated when she rejected him.
The filing is just the latest salvo in a several-year battle between Joseph Zengerle, a West Point graduate and Airborne Ranger Infantry officer in Vietnam who founded the university’s Clinic for Legal Assistance to Servicemembers, and Kyndra Rotunda, former lawyer in the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Office and a prosecutor for the Guantanamo Bay Office of Military Commissions, who was hired as the clinic’s director.
Mr. Zengerle has denied the allegations, outlined as part of a bitter fight that has resulted in a testy court case involving the exchange of nearly 100,000 pages of documents and 100 hours of depositions. The dispute also led to Mrs. Rotunda and her husband, Ronald Rotunda, a noted constitutional law expert, quitting their jobs at George Mason.
The university also is named in the suit and joined with Mr. Zengerle in asking the court to dismiss it. The school has denied allegations that it ignored Mrs. Rotunda’s complaints and paid her a lesser salary because she is a woman.
In his July 17, 2008, resignation letter, Mr. Rotunda said GMU was “more concerned with hiding its dirty laundry than cleaning it.” He said when his wife complained of incidents of sexual harassment, the law school “scrambled to cover up the problem … and retaliated against the victim instead of fixing the problem.”
Both Rotundas now teach at Chapman University School of Law in California.
Mrs. Rotunda filed her suit in July 2009, saying she had been forced to resign in 2007 because of the harassment, a hostile working environment and fear her employment record would be marred by job reprimands, which she called unjustified. The case is scheduled to go to trial in June.
Mr. Zengerle, the Rotundas, George Mason and Daniel D. Polsby, the GMU law school dean who also is named in the suit, declined comment on the pending case. Mr. Zengerle, the university and Mr. Polsby all filed motions asking the judge to throw out the case.
“Professor Zengerle categorically denies he engaged in any improper conduct,” said Mr. Zengerle’s attorney, Michael Lorenger. “We expect the lawsuit to be dismissed at trial.”
Mr. Zengerle, who served as assistant Air Force secretary during the Carter administration, founded the Clinic for Legal Assistance in 2004 to help service men and their families with civil legal problems for free. In August 2006, he offered the job as clinic director to Mrs. Rotunda.
In her suit, Mrs. Rotunda said the alleged sexual harassment began shortly after she was hired. She said she was discriminated against because of her sex and Mr. Zengerle created a “sexually-hostile working environment.” She said when she refused his advances, he retaliated against her.
In court documents, Mr. Zengerle’s lawyers said that in the suit, Mrs. Rotunda “alleges no sexual propositions, no sexual gestures, no sexual touching, no obscene jokes or vulgar comments.” They said the two had conflicts in large part because Mrs. Rotunda refused to accept him as her supervisor.
Mrs. Rotunda argued that George Mason did little to address her complaints. In court papers, she said she met with Mr. Polsby, Mr. Zengerle and other law school officials in April 2007 and Mr. Zengerle promised to stop any behavior she found objectionable.
Two months later, she filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Equity and Diversity Services, which found “insufficient evidence” to support her allegations. In August 2007, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint, and a few weeks later, after receiving a three-page letter of reprimand from Mr. Zengerle, she resigned.
George Mason disputed allegations that she was the victim of discrimination in being paid $70,000 a year while Mr. Zengerle, the executive director, was paid nearly twice that. In court papers, the university said the pay scale was set before she got the job and would have been the same if a male applicant had been chosen.
About the Author
By Brahma Chellaney
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