A woman has filed suit against George Washington University, alleging that the school mishandled a sexual harassment complaint against her that was filed by a student.
University officials behaved in a sexist manner during their investigation, Catherine Woytowicz alleges in court documents. GWU is also accused of “expanding the coverage of their prohibitions so that they mean anything and everything and place all law-abiding faculty, staff and students at risk,” her lawsuit states.
The Hatchet, GWU’s student newspaper, reported that Woytowicz was a part-time professor. Her attorney, Richard Seymour, said she taught chemistry and also worked in the Elliott School of International Affairs. She is no longer teaching at the school, although school officials said they lacked evidence to support the student’s harassment claims.
“What my client is alleging is that there is a false complaint that was made against her by a male student, and the university agrees that there was no foundation to the complaint,” Seymour said. “But rather than closing the proceedings, they then decided to continue proceedings against her, even though the complaint was false.”
In doing that, Seymour said, the university developed new standards that would “harm just about everybody in the George Washington community” if they were applied to male professors, or applied more generally.
The lawsuit, initially filed in D.C. Superior Court and moved to federal court last month, names five defendants, including the school and Rory Muhammad, the university’s Title IX coordinator.
“The university is deeply committed to fair treatment of its faculty as well as to safeguarding its students from inappropriate relationships with faculty,” university spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton said. “In this case, and as the university has stated in the motion it filed with the court to dismiss the lawsuit, the faculty member who brought the lawsuit was treated fairly and lawfully. The university will continue to defend its position in court.”
The matter began in March 2016, when Woytowicz was notified of the student’s complaint via an email from Muhammad, according to the court filing. The email didn’t detail the allegations against Woytowicz, and in a subsequent meeting, Muhammad described the accusations in “the vaguest of terms,” according to the lawsuit.
At one point, court documents allege, Muhammad appeared to toy with Woytowicz, holding a notebook over her head when she asked to look at it.
“He seemed to delight in this, as if playing a child’s game of keep away,” the documents state.
During that meeting, Woytowicz also claims Muhammad “seemed to be gloating” and aggressively questioned her about her sex life.
According to the filing, Muhammad sent Woytowicz a document that carried snippets of text messages allegedly sent between the professor and the student, which Woytowicz claims were “cherry-picked” or taken out of context.
At a November meeting with Woytowicz and school officials, Muhammad said he didn’t have evidence to support the complaint but did find inappropriate behavior, according to the court filings. He also expanded the phrase “consensual sexual relationship” to include verbal statements, the documents claim.
In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, filed in late December, the defendants argue that although there was not evidence to support a sexual harassment charge against Woytowicz, the investigation found evidence the university found “disturbing.”
The professor and student sent “hundreds” of text messages, that motion states, many of which were “salacious and suggestive.”
Woytowicz suffered a significant amount of stress during the process, according to her lawsuit, including weight loss, feeling isolated and suffering panic attacks.
“People trust institutions to do the right thing,” Seymour said. “She trusted that she would be treated fairly by the university. When trust like that is betrayed, when it turns out that the institution was not trustworthy, that causes a real toll on people. It is very important for institutions — colleges, universities, employers and other bodies — to look at every situation with an open mind.”