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Michigan Law Professor Alleges Race, Sex, Family Status Bias (1)

Aug. 29, 2022, 5:30 PM

The University of Michigan and its law school discriminated against a Black female tenured law professor based on her race, sex, status as a single mother, and perceived disability, and retaliated against her for her advocacy of diversity, equity, and inclusion, a new federal lawsuit asserts.

Laura Beny said the race and sex discrimination includes not receiving pay raises in lockstep with a White male and a White female professor who were hired at the same salary as she was, despite their expectation that would be the case. Beny’s White male cohort also received a chaired professorship five years before Beny did, according to her complaint filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

She’s seeking money damages and injunctive relief. The school denies the allegations.

At the time she was hired in 2003, Beny said, she was just the second Black female tenure track professor hired by the University of Michigan Law School in its then nearly 150 -year history. She helped get another Black woman hired on the tenure track the following year, but she left and Beny was again the only Black female tenured professor working full-time at the law school’s Ann Arbor campus from 2018 to around July 2022, the suit said.

There was also only one Black male tenured professor during that time despite the law school employing nearly 100 tenured and tenure track professors, Beny said.

Throughout her tenure, Beny has demonstrated “a deep personal commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion among faculty, staff, and students,"according to her complaint, and “has consistently advocated for the Law School to increase the number of professors of color and female professors” as well as for equity and inclusion among students.

That includes her filing a complaint with the office of institutional equity on behalf of herself and other women professors relating to pay and speaking out at a junior scholars conference, criticizing it for not being organized according to the DEI principles the law school “allegedly espouses,” the suit said.

Beny also allegedly faced sexist and sexually harassing remarks over the years, including from the law school’s current dean, Mark West, who’s also named as a defendant. West’s written and verbal comments included tropes portraying her as a “dominatrix,” which “demeaned and horrified” her as “a new single mother,” Beny said.

The familial status, sex, and race bias also included the school insisting Beny bring her daughter, who was in Covid-19 isolation, to campus to sit in Beny’s office while she taught for hours in another area of the building, instead of allowing her to teach via Zoom, the suit said. White and male professors were able to teach via Zoom “when they had concerns about their minor children’s exposure to the virus,” the suit said.

The retaliation she has faced for “championing” Black and female students and professors has included being disciplined for pretextual reasons, not being provided with administrative due process; being ostracized, and being constructively stripped of her main duties, Beny said.

“The University of Michigan will vigorously defend itself and the Law School against the meritless allegations made by Professor Laura Beny in her complaint,” Rick Fitzgerald, a university spokesperson, told Bloomberg Law Monday in an email. “Professor Beny, who came to U-M in 2003, remains a tenured faculty member in the Law School,” he said.

Causes of Action: Titles VI and VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; 42 U.S.C. §1981; Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments; First, Fifth & 14th amendments; Americans with Disabilities Act; the Family and Medical Leave Act; Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act; and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

Relief: Damages and interest on damages; injunctive relief; attorneys’ fees and costs.

Attorneys: Edwards & Jennings PC represents Beny.

The case is Beny v. Univ. of Mich., E.D. Mich., No. 2:22-cv-12021, complaint filed 8/26/22.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com