Former professor’s claims of gender-based discrimination, wrongful termination dismissed in federal court| April 13, 2020
In late March, the University won a discrimination lawsuit filed by former electrical engineering professor Sergio Verdú, after a federal judge ruled that he had failed to demonstrate evidence of gender bias in his 2018 firing. Verdú’s legal counsel has since filed an appeal.
The March 30 decision in Verdú v. The Trustees of Princeton University, et al., followed an almost year-long legal battle over Verdú's claim that the University had violated Title IX and the 1964 Civil Rights Act in dismissing him.
Verdú was fired in September 2018, after the University determined that he had violated its policies prohibiting consensual relations with students and requiring honesty and cooperation in University matters. Previous allegations against Verdú include a 2017 Title IX investigation, which concluded he had sexually harassed his master’s student advisee, Yeohee Im GS ’17. Verdú still denies these allegations, according to statements made by his lawyers during the trial.
By the time of publication, Im had not responded to request for comment.
The initial legal complaint filed by Verdú’s lawyers alleges “gender-biased Title IX proceedings” as well as “unwarranted and flawed termination proceedings against him.” Verdú alleged that the University had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects employees from discrimination, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination.
Chief Judge Freda L. Wolfon of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey was not compelled by the allegations of gender-based discrimination, which were predicated upon a comparison between Verdú and Im’s treatments by the University.
Wolfson explained that to prove gender-based discrimination, Verdú’s lawyers would have had to demonstrate that a female professor in a similar situation to Verdú had been treated differently.
“[The Plaintiff] has not alleged that he is similar in any relevant respect to Im. He also has not identified any other similarly situated female employees (professors or otherwise) who were treated differently than him in similar circumstances,” said Judge Wolfson during the trial.
She continued, “Accordingly, I find that plaintiff has not sufficiently pled facts from which it can be inferred that plaintiff was treated differently by his employer, the university, because of his gender.”
As outlined in Wolfson’s decision, the plausibility standard to which Verdú’s case was held “requires that the plaintiff allege more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Verdú’s complaint, according to this ruling, did not meet that standard.
The University’s lawyers declined to comment on the ongoing suit. Verdú’s counsel did not respond to request for comment.
The court remains operational through electronic means during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the timeline of the case will likely continue as normal. An appeal from the Third Circuit would be sent to the Supreme Court for final review.