Male doctor and female subordinate each opened Title IX investigations
A Philadelphia university must pay $15 million to a male doctor after a jury found it had discriminated against him based on gender in a Title IX investigation.
On Dec. 11, a jury entered the judgment against Thomas Jefferson University based on its decision in favor of the plaintiff, former Rothman Orthopaedic Institute surgeon John Abraham. One of his subordinates, medical resident Jessica Philips, had accused him of rape.
Irene Reyes, senior director of news and media relations at Thomas Jefferson University, told The College Fix that the school is “disappointed in the jury’s verdict and continue to believe Jefferson treated both parties fairly and equitably in this matter between a faculty member and a resident physician learner.”
“Nevertheless, we respect the jury process and thank the jurors for their service,” Reyes said. “Jefferson will consider all appellate options available to it.”
Campus due process commentators spoke with The College Fix on why the jury might have determined Jefferson violated Title IX and on the implications for other universities.
Edward Bartlett, president of the policy organization Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, pointed to the disparity between the university’s investigation of Dr. Abraham’s (pictured) original Title IX complaint alleging sexual misconduct on Philips’ part and Philips’ own, subsequent Title IX complaint involving Abraham.
SAVE “seeks to assure that the federal Title IX law is applied consistently and fairly to all students, both male and female,” according to its website.
Abraham had reported to the university in June 2018 that Philips committed sexual misconduct by getting him drunk and coercing him into intercourse at a party at his house. Subsequently, Philips submitted her own Title IX complaint in which she accused Abraham of rape.
The university had properly pursued Phillips’ case but not Abraham’s, according to Bartlett.
When there is “a series of untoward actions” such as the university’s failure to pursue Abraham’s case in light of this discrepancy, “it is reasonable to conclude it was due to sex bias,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said the best way for the universities to assist the accused parties in Title IX case[es] would be for them to “follow their own rules” and “ensure the accused receives due process procedures – beginning with the presumption of innocence.”
On June 19, 2020, Abraham, who held clinical privileges and a faculty appointment at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, filed a civil complaint against the university accusing it of violating Title IX as well as “breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and tortious interference by Defendants with Plaintiff’s business relations with Rothman Orthopaedics.”
The civil case went to trial this year. After four days, on Dec. 7, the jurors concluded Thomas Jefferson University had “discriminated against [Abraham] as a male and intentionally interfered with his ability to earn money as a Rothman surgeon and partner,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that day.
The case covered the competing Title IX complaints, with Abraham’s side arguing that his own investigation was mishandled.
The Inquirer reported Phillips wrote that “she woke up in Abraham’s bed the morning after the party naked, disoriented, and covered in bruises.”
“She said Abraham sexually assaulted her and filed a criminal complaint against him in early July 2018,” according to the paper. “Montgomery County prosecutors closed their investigation with no charges about four months later.”
Days after the party, Rothman Orthopaedic Institute suspended Abraham, and Thomas Jefferson University forced him to take a leave of absence, according to The Inquirer. Rothman is “academically and financially” linked to Jefferson.
Abraham told jurors he resigned from Jefferson in December 2018 because university leaders told him he would be found culpable at Phillips’ Title IX hearing.
Rothman fired him last year for allegedly failing to bring in enough revenue as is required of the firm’s partners.
Abraham originally sought $5 million from Jefferson in compensatory damages and additional punitive damages, arguing the university should be punished for acting unlawfully.
Legal scholar Eugene Volokh, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, told The Fix in a Dec. 20 phone call that successful Title IX lawsuits based on claims of sexual misconduct are unusual, particularly in combination with such a large payout.
$15 million is “a lot of money,” Volokh said. “A lot of people perceive our legal system as providing massive verdicts, but that’s actually quite rare.”
While the large amount may be due in part to Abraham’s earning power as a doctor, it also suggests that “the jury is pretty upset,” Volokh said. “The jury must have thought that he really was treated worse because he was a man.”
He also said that the verdict would “send a signal to university administrators.”
Administrators “might say, wait a minute, if it happened at Thomas Jefferson University, it might happen to us,” Volokh said.
While it might be the case that universities become “too cautious,” the case “is a reminder to universities that they need to be careful here with regard to sex discrimination against men as well as against women,” he said.
Abraham’s complaint accused the university of “inactions” on his own Title IX case and “engag[ing] in substantial errors in violation of federal law, state law, and Defendants’ own policies.”
These allegations included “failing to investigate Dr. Abraham’s allegation that Roe had engaged in nonconsensual sexual intercourse with him” and concluding Roe’s investigation “without allowing Dr. Abraham a full and fair opportunity to provide a statement, to present over twenty-nine material witnesses along with witness statements, and to offer other evidence on his behalf,” according to the complaint.
Even more “during the period in question, Dr. Abraham’s superiors made gender-biased statements towards him,” the complaint states. “By way of example…[university administrator] Dr. Alex Vaccaro told Dr. Abraham that ‘a man cannot be sexually assaulted by a woman’ and discouraged Dr. Abraham from making any such claim.”
In a Sept. 10, 2021 memorandum regarding a motion by Thomas Jefferson University to dismiss the case, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Baylson wrote that the university “conducted a superficial, flawed, and gender-based investigation” into Doe’s allegations against Abraham.
IMAGE: LinkedIn/John A Abraham MD