Court Case: Lever v. Northwestern University, et al.

Case History

Janet Lever, former assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Illinois, sued the university and others for sex discrimination in the denial of tenure in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lever joined Northwestern’s sociology department faculty in 1974 as a tenure-track assistant professor on a three-year contract. The university renewed her contract for another three years, and in the last year considered her for tenure. Lever maintained that throughout her employment, she met all the scholarship, teaching, and service requirements for a successful tenure bid. In 1979, the tenured faculty within her department unanimously recommended Lever for tenure. This recommendation was affirmed by an ad hoc committee appointed by the dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences in early 1980.

One month later, a majority of the university’s promotion and tenure committee voted to recommend Lever for tenure. However, because this vote was just shy of the two-thirds majority required by the university, the recommendation was reversed. In May 1980, the dean recommended to the university’s provost that Lever be denied tenure and offered her a one-year terminal contract. However, following a letter of protest by the sociology department, the dean stated that he would reconsider his recommendation if Lever submitted a completed version of a manuscript to his office for review in fall 1980. Upon reconsideration, the dean upheld his recommendation in January 1981, and offered Lever a terminal contract ending in 1982.

Lever alleged that the dean had undue negative influence on the promotion and tenure committee during her tenure review. In addition, she stated that standards for review applied to her tenure application were more rigorous and procedurally irregular in comparison to those applied to male faculty.

Lever filed a complaint against the university with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 1981 and filed suit in federal court in 1984. Following review of defendants’ motion for summary judgment and all responsive briefs, the court ordered a magistrate judge to conduct a trial solely on the issue of whether Lever’s EEOC complaint had been filed timely. (A complaint must be timely filed with the EEOC in order for the agency to process the complaint and issue the complainant a right-to-sue letter, which is a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) The magistrate determined that Lever’s EEOC complaint was not timely filed.

The court adopted these findings and dismissed Lever’s Title VII claim in 1991, finding that the claim was time barred. In its decision, the district court found that the alleged unlawful employment practice against Lever occurred in May 1980 when the dean originally recommended that Lever be denied tenure, and not in January 1981, when the dean upheld his decision upon recommendation. Therefore, the court found that EEOC’s 300-day statute of limitations began in May 1980 and expired well before Lever filed her EEOC complaint in June 1981.

In 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Lever then appealed the circuit court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear her case.

Key Issues

Sex discrimination in the denial of tenure in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, timeliness of an EEOC complaint filing in a tenure denial.