Court Case: Lerner v. Northeastern University

Case History

Cathy Lerner worked as a physics instructor at Northeastern University from August 1997 to June 1999. She consistently received favorable evaluations from her students, who tended to perform better in her class than in other classes. Apparently resenting this, Prof. Arun Bansil spread a rumor that Lerner was giving answers to her students prior to their exams. Although Lerner did not write the exams and was not allowed to see one exam until five minutes before it began, her students still outperformed those in other sections. Three professors — Bansil, Carl Shiffman, and acting department chair Clive Perry — then told colleagues that Lerner wrote test answers on the blackboard or handed them out just before the tests began.

Lerner believes the negative comments about her teaching were connected with Allan Widom, a colleague who developed a crush on Lerner but turned bitter and vindictive when she rejected his advances. Lerner alleges that Widom made disparaging statements about her to other male colleagues and that his comments, coupled with her colleagues’ perception of her battle with breast cancer, ultimately led to her termination.

After rejecting Widom’s advances, Lerner began receiving malicious e-mail messages and handwritten notes from him. In one of the early notes, Widom wrote: “You turned on everything inside of me. It did not matter how much I tried to kill it. You completely melted my private barrier when I was off guard and was not looking so ‘of course’ I reacted as a ‘completely crazy’ man.” In a later note, he wrote: “Stop being a psychopathic loser all your life. Go along with what I am doing. I will try eventually to get you a permanent job. I will be and in many ways have been the best friend you ever had. But I do not like you.” Finally, Lerner received a handwritten note stating, “Die you whore.”

Lerner filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission on Discrimination, and subsequently filed a lawsuit in state court in December 2000. In 2002, Lerner settled her suit with the university; terms of the settlement agreement are confidential.

Key Case Issues

Sex discrimination, sexual harassment