College found not guilty in discrimination lawsuit

by Rebecca Cress | 9/24/08 2:30am

Dartmouth was found not guilty in a discrimination suit filed by theater professor Mara Sabinson against the College in an opinion published Sept. 12 by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Sabinson filed suit against Dartmouth in 2007, after the College offered Sabinson a retirement package in 2005, giving her the option to stay at the College and be "marginalized to certain courses." Sabinson alleged that the College's action was motivated by discrimination based on her age, sex and religion and was an act of retaliation against an earlier complaint she had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights in August 2005.

According to the court's written opinion, the College had determined in 2005 that while serving as department chair, Sabinson had caused, at least partially, the department to become "demoralized" and fall into "disrepair."

During the original 2007 case before the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire, the court granted the College's motion for summary judgment, ruling that Sabinson lacked the direct evidence necessary to establish that the College moved to reassign her courses based on her age, sex or religion, or that they were acting in retaliation against her complaint. The lower court refused to rule on Sabinson's claims that the College had breached her contract, citing that such a claim would be within the jurisdiction of a state, and not a federal, court.

In the most recent opinion, Circuit Judge Michael Boudin wrote that although Sabinson may have been treated unfairly, she could not prove that such treatment was motivated by discrimination on the basis of religion, age, sex or another such "listed prejudice." The court found that the plan to offer Sabinson "marginal" course assignments if she refused a retirement package had been devised before August 2005, and therefore could not have been an act of retaliation against Sabinson's earlier complaint.

"The College is very pleased that the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals has reached the same conclusion that the U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H. reached earlier in this matter, finding that Dartmouth did not discriminate or retaliate against Professor Sabinson in any way," Robert Donin, the College's general counsel, said in a statement.

Sabinson argued that the offer of a retirement package reflected intent to reassign her courses based on her age. Though Sabinson provided some anecdotal evidence of discrimination, Boudin noted that none of that evidence directly supported her allegations.

"If arguable unfairness in treatment were enough, Sabinson might well have a case for a jury," Boudin said in the opinion. "But, whether or not personal or professional hostility played a role in the assessment, federal law does not protect generally against arbitrary or unfair treatment in private employment, but only against actions motivated by listed prejudices such as race, age and gender," he added.

Furthermore, Boudin wrote that Sabinson's claims seemed to illustrate that certain colleagues and administrators disliked her personally and had an agenda to eliminate her from her position, which actually undermined her own argument. By highlighting the animosity against her, he said, Sabinson inadvertently offered alternative motives for the College's actions.

"Sabinson's case might well be stronger if, after raising doubts about the purported reason for her treatment, the only plausible reason left appeared to be discrimination," he said.

Sabinson has been on the faculty of the theater department since 1985. She received tenure in 1991 and served as chair of the department for seven non-consecutive years, ending in 2002.

Though Sabinson may have generated some animosity among the faculty and students, her reviews have not been universally negative. On the Student Assembly Course Guide web site, some students recommended her highly.

"Prof can be harsh but is really effective. Most people came a long way in this class," a theater major from the Class of 2006 wrote about Acting I course that Sabinson taught during the Summer term of 2004.

Sabinson told The Dartmouth that she had no comment on the case, and her attorney, K. William Clauson, did not respond to requests for comment. The College's attorney, Bruce W. Felmly, deferred to Donin for statements from the College's perspective.

Sabinson is scheduled to teach one course this Fall term, "Theater for Social Change," a first-year seminar.