The federal appeals court based in Colorado will hear oral arguments next month in the case of a University of Denver professor who alleges that rumors about his relationship with a student resulted in unlawful sex discrimination and a hostile work environment.
Ron Throupe is a tenured professor in DU’s college of business who occasionally helped Asian international students at DU with their immigration status or with finding employment. One such female student served as Throupe’s graduate assistant around 2013, and subsequently worked for his businesses and traveled with him to attend conferences.
Their relationship also included her spending time with Throupe’s family, including on water skiing, movie and dinner excursions. Throupe eventually legally adopted her as a daughter in 2015.
He alleged that after he brought the student to a 2014 gala in lieu of his wife, rumors began in the school about a romantic relationship between the two. The university’s director of international student scholar services became concerned that “the relationship that he was describing with the student surpassed the usual boundaries of what was acceptable between a student and faculty member,” U.S. District Senior Judge Marcia S. Krieger recounted in her Jan. 29 ruling on the case.
In a meeting with Throupe, it came to light that all of the student’s classes were with him, that she was on Throupe’s family's cell phone plan and that he commented on her menstrual cycle.
Although the Title IX investigator at the university asked for a meeting with the student to discuss her concerns, she responded: “I’m fine.”
In November 2015, Paul Olk, DU associate dean, wrote to Throupe with concerns about the relationship, barring him from being her employer, advisor or teacher. Throupe in turn sued Olk, real estate school chair Barbara Jackson and others, alleging they defamed him through statements about professional misconduct.
Specifically, he claimed under Title IX — the federal civil rights provision that prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex — that he was targeted because of his sex and subjected to a hostile work environment. He also argued Jackson, as chair, had planned to eliminate him and his fellow real estate instructors, and the rumors were a means to that end.
“Mr. Thoupe’s [sic] briefing does not materially address the ‘based on sex’ element of the hostile environment claim,” wrote Krieger, dismissing his claims. “[T]his Court concludes that the rumors that circulated about Mr. Thoupe having an ‘affair’ with [the student] do not constitute harassment directed at Mr. Thoupe because of his sex. As a result, Mr. Thoupe cannot predicate a hostile environment claim on the circulation of such rumors.”
Nathaniel B. Smith, a New York City-based attorney for Throupe, asked in a brief that the appellate judges find his client suffered from sex discrimination and “was targeted by DU as a man having an affair because he did not conform to typical notions about how a man should act with the opposite sex.”
“Since the reasonable inferences drawn in Throupe’s favor from the evidence raise an issue of fact about whether DU and his supervisors would have treated Throupe the same way if he had engaged in exactly the same conduct but had been a woman,” Smith added, “the lower court’s summary judgment determination should be reversed.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is scheduled to hear the case on Jan. 14.