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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Hamilton files motion to dismiss discrimination lawsuit

Given the complexities of the timeline, involved parties, and broader systemic questions raised by the lawsuit, readers are strongly encouraged to first read its initial coverage.

SYRACUSE, NY – Hamilton College has filed a motion to dismiss a race and national origin discrimination lawsuit from tenured Professor of French Joseph Mwantuali. Hamilton’s March 28th dismissal motion frames the conflict as personal in nature, arguing that the suit fails to allege employment discrimination or retaliation as defined by law, and that regardless most claims in his suit are past the statute of limitations. Mwantuali’s lawyers must submit a response to the dismissal motion by May 16th, for which Hamilton will then have until the 30th to reply before the Court decides its outcome. Both parties declined to comment on the dismissal motion.

“[Mwantuali] has not been demoted during his decades at the College; rather, he was granted tenure and promoted first to Associate Professor and then to full Professor. He remains a respected member of the faculty. The fact that he and his colleagues in the French and Francophone Studies Department have a less than collegial relationship does not establish a claim of employment discrimination. His complaint should be dismissed,” read the conclusion of Hamilton’s dismissal motion obtained by Monitor.

On February 27th, in response to a request from Hamilton to Judge Mae A. D'Agostino to allow them to file the dismissal motion, Mwantuali’s lawyer, Chaya Gourarie, wrote, “Plaintiff opposes Defendant’s motion, since its submission raises only questions of facts, which the Court may not resolve on a motion to dismiss.” Judge D’Agostino still permitted Hamilton to file the dismissal motion.

Notably, Hamilton’s motion to dismiss included the full text of then-Dean of Faculty Suzanne Keen’s disciplinary letter to Mwantuali from March 2020. The letter sheds new light on the College’s investigation into what he has described as false harassment allegations from Assistant Professor Claire Mouflard manipulated into existence by other women department members with whom he had long-standing conflicts. Based on a confidential report prepared by Harter Secrest & Emery LLP and her own work, Keen noted that Mwantuali had regularly referred to members of his department as “the women” during the investigation.

Citing alleged incidents including a private meeting with Mouflard in Mwantuali’s office where he insisted on closing the door despite her protest, his sustained questioning of Mouflard’s residence in relation to another department member, Professor Cheryl Morgan, who he perceived as targeting him, conflict over TA selection he perceived as “anti-Joseph” and going behind his back, a note he made in Mouflard’s personnel file about their conflict, and more, Keen found Mwantuali responsible for gender-based harassment and perpetuating a hostile work environment.

“Taken together, these incidents indicate an unprofessional departmental atmosphere in which it is reasonable for Professor Mouflard to fear being treated by you alternately as a member of a group of women aligned against you, or as an unwitting tool of specific senior women who plant malicious ideas in her head,” Keen wrote.

In an emailed February statement identical to Professor Martine Guyot-Bender’s and extremely similar to Morgan’s, Mouflard told Monitor, “As I am a witness in the lawsuit that has been filed against the College, I will not be discussing the matter with journalists or students until the case is completed.”

Many in the Hamilton community had a strong reaction to the lawsuit when first reported in February. “He’s upbeat, cheerful, non-judgemental, and patient,” described one of his students, Vivian Miller ‘26. “What’s happening is really terrible.”

“I received great support from my students and a few colleagues,” Mwantuali wrote to Monitor in mid-March.

A high legal bar for discrimination

Mwantuali, a Black man who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, filed the suit in December alleging a decades-long pattern of discrimination from some white women colleagues in his department and high-level administrators. He alleges hostility from peers, barriers to career advancement, exclusion from departmental decision-making, unfair internal judicial proceedings, and retaliation. Since filing, two lawyers from Tully Rinckey, PLLC in addition to Gourarie have appeared to represent Mwantuali: Matthew Ricci and Allen Shoikhetbrod. Hamilton remains represented by Jonathan Fellows and Suzanne Messer of Bond Schoeneck & King, PLLC (BSK).

Gourarie cited 300 Gramatan Ave. Assocs. v. State Div. of Hum. Rts (1978) in her February letter opposing Hamilton’s request to motion for dismissal, “discrimination is rarely so obvious or its practices so overt that recognition of it is instant and conclusive, it being accomplished usually by devious and subtle means.” She concluded, “other faculty members noticed and observed that [Mwantuali] was being held to a different standard than that of his white counterparts. Thus, an adverse employment action was adequately pled.”

Citing state and federal case law, Hamilton asserted that discrimination complaints “must allege that the employer has taken an adverse employment action against the employee” and that, “To the contrary, by [Mwantuali’s] own allegations, he was hired, granted tenure, promoted to full Professor, named Department Chair, and continues to be a full Professor at Hamilton.”

While the initial complaint claimed Mwantuali’s promotion to full Professor was forestalled by his department, Fellows and Messer cited Dean of Faculty Patrick Reynolds’s 2012 promotion letter to Mwantuali saying he was “pleased to affirm the recommendations of the department.” The motion states that in any event a promotion cannot be considered adverse employment action.

The motion further argues that the suit does not meet the bar of a hostile work environment, failing to present specific allegations of fact. Hamilton asserted that only one part of Mwantuali’s initial complaint came close: “Professor Guyot-Bender has taunted [him] with attempts to engage in confrontations (“Let’s fight”); made racially stereotypical remarks; invaded his and his family’s privacy by showing-up unsolicited to [his] residence; spread rumors about [his] son and his disability; and threatened to “isolate” [him].”

Still, Hamilton argued these claims were not specific enough to warrant hearing a case of a hostile work environment and emphasized that not getting along with colleagues “is not evidence of a racially hostile environment.”

Hamilton seeks dismissal of the retaliation claims on similar and additional grounds. “Most notably, the adverse employment actions he alleges are either time barred or are not sufficient to state a claim.” Hamilton further asserts that because Mwantuali withdrew his internal College harassment complaint against Guyot-Bender in 2020, and Keen’s removal of supervisory duties and change in office space are actions previously ruled by courts as not retaliatory, his claim of retaliation does not meet the standard to be heard in court.

Too late?

Of the applicable employment and civil rights laws Mwantuali is suing under, the longest statute of limitations is four years. His claims, however, span decades of alleged abuse. Mwantuali’s most recent allegation, that Dean of Faculty Suzanne Keen took adverse action against him following a false harassment complaint from Professor Claire Mouflard and that his own complaint against Professor Guyot-Bender was unfairly investigated, falls within the statutes.

Gourarie’s February filing, however, asserts, “It is well settled law that pursuant to the ‘continuing violation’ doctrine, a plaintiff may bring an otherwise time-barred discrimination claim where the alleged acts of discrimination occurred pursuant to an ongoing policy of discrimination.”

Gourarie cited Cornwell v. Robinson (1994), “A continuing violation may be found where there is proof of specific ongoing discriminatory polices [sic] or practices, or where specific and related instances of discrimination are permitted by the employer to continue unremedied for so long as to amount to a discriminatory policy or practice.”

Hamilton’s motion argues, “the courts have made clear that a new ‘discrete act’ that occurred within the statute of limitations is not grounds to invoke the ‘continuing violation’ doctrine,” citing Kelley v. Ithaca College (2019), where Messer and BSK successfully represented Ithaca College against a discrimination complaint.

This would mean Mwantuali cannot tie Dean Keen’s disciplinary decision to prior potentially unlawful acts beyond the limitations lest it was part of an ongoing policy of discrimination. Therefore, Fellows and Messer write, “The Dean’s ruling on a complaint of gender-based harassment made under the College’s Sexual Misconduct Policy is a discrete act, separate from any of the other allegations in the complaint such as the alleged delay in Plaintiff’s promotion to full Professor.”

What’s next?

Judge D’Agostino will review the dismissal motion and succeeding replies from both parties and determine whether, or which parts of, the case will move forward to trial. This is likely to occur in the next month. Mwantuali has requested a jury trial and unspecified damages, and continues to teach at Hamilton.

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