Faculty Punished for Reporting Title IX Violations and Sexual Harassment: Feather River Community College Cases
Civil rights laws like Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 do more than prohibit gender discrimination in education. Title IX also protects educators who challenge discriminatory treatment on their campuses.
Unfortunately, too many educators who stand up for fair treatment face retaliation. The cases filed by Paul Thein, Laurel Wartluft, and Michelle Henley (previously known as Michelle Jaureguito) against Feather River Community College highlight the importance of protecting faculty and staff who advocate for gender equity.
Update: Henley and Wartluft settled their lawsuits in fall 2015. Thein’s 11-year experience with the legal system and California’s administrative processes, which he describes as a case of David battling Goliath, culminated in May 2017 when he was awarded a $2-million settlement.
The Story behind the Feather River Cases
Paul Thein, Laurel Wartluft, and Michelle Henley are former employees of Feather River Community College in California. In 2006, they filed whistleblower lawsuits against Feather River, alleging that the college violated Title IX by retaliating against them for complaining about sex discrimination, among other claims. Although their suits were filed as separate cases, all three cite related incidents in 2005. AAUW began supporting their cases in 2007.
Thein was a seven-year employee of Feather River. By the end of his tenure, Thein was appointed vice president of student services. He worked with Henley, who was the director of the Upward Bound and Talent Search programs (which help high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds attend college), and Wartluft, who had been hired on an emergency basis as the head coach of the women’s basketball team and a part-time faculty member.
In the spring and summer of 2005, Thein alleges, he began to voice concerns about the college’s Title IX compliance. He was concerned that the college was not treating the women’s coaching staff equally. He recommended making the head coach of women’s basketball a full-time tenure-track position. The college formed a hiring committee to evaluate candidates for a permanent position.
Wartluft, still serving as an emergency hire, applied for the position and seconded Thein’s concerns about discriminatory treatment of the women’s coaching staff. Thein advocated for Wartluft’s hire and believed he had succeeding in convincing the college that the position should be full-time and tenure track. Despite Wartluft’s significant qualifications, the hiring committee initially ranked a candidate with no collegiate coaching experience ahead of Wartluft.
In late summer 2005, Thein was authorized to offer Wartluft the permanent head coach position, and she accepted. However, Wartluft never received her written contract. Although she began teaching the next school year as a new full-time hire, she alleges that the college never paid her. She repeatedly asked when she would receive her contract and her pay. Expecting to finally receive her contract, she met with the human resources director, only to be given a letter reassigning her coaching responsibilities and effectively terminating her.
During the same period, Henley and Thein were struggling with a different issue. In July 2005, Henley received reports of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by a staff member. Several students reported to Henley and to Thein that a particular staff member had sexually harassed and inappropriately touched students. Henley and Thein reported the students’ complaints to the college president. In response, Henley alleges, the college president warned Henley and Thein to “protect themselves” from possible retaliation by the staff member’s father, who was a senior faculty member at Feather River.
Thein and Henley claim that the college retaliated against them for reporting and investigating the students’ complaints. In September, Thein was informed that his employment contract would not be renewed for another year. Then, in November, he was placed on administrative leave through the end of his contract.
Henley faced similar retaliation. Shortly after reporting the complaints, Henley alleges, she was charged with a baseless disciplinary action (which was eventually dismissed) and harassed by staff. Although she reported the retaliatory harassment several times, it continued. Finally, as a result of the ongoing harassment, she was forced to quit her job in April 2006.
Thein filed suit against Feather River in August 2006; Henley and Wartluft filed similar suits in November 2006. All three cases were eventually referred to California’s State Personnel Board (SPB). In August 2009, a California SPB judge issued a decision in favor of all three plaintiffs, ordering their reinstatement and awarding them back pay and damages. Feather River appealed the SPB judge’s decision. After a lengthy appeal, the full SPB upheld the judge’s 2009 decision in the plaintiffs’ favor.
Why These Cases Matter
The Feather River cases highlight the importance of protecting educators who do the right thing. Faculty and staff who are willing to fight for fairness on campus and in the classroom should not be terminated by colleges and universities in retaliation for their activism.
AAUW Members and Supporters Make It Possible
Thein values the emotional support that AAUW members offer him as he tells his story across the country and the LAF funding that makes his travel possible. The AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund has been crucial to the success of many gender discrimination cases during its long history. The case support program provides financial and organizational backing for plaintiffs who are challenging gender discrimination in education and the workplace. The funds come directly from the generous contributions of AAUW members.
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