Chemistry professor sues University over ‘malicious’ sexual harassment investigation

A chemistry professor is suing the University alleging that she was wrongfully accused of an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student and was subjected to harsh and sexist treatment over the course of the investigation.

Catherine Woytowicz, a part-time professor of chemistry and international affairs, accuses the University of 15 different infractions in a lawsuit filed Dec. 18 in D.C. Superior Court. In a 249-page complaint, she claims that the University’s handling of the case represented a breach of contract and violated her rights under the First and Fifth Amendments and the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Woytowicz alleges that after she was accused of sexual harassment by a male student, she faced “malicious” treatment by Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad, chemistry department chair Michael King and various other officials.

Woytowicz charges in the complaint that over the course of the investigation, officials expanded Title IX restrictions “so that they mean anything and everything and place all law-abiding faculty, staff and students at risk.”

The sexual harassment allegations were later found to be unfounded, but Woytowicz alleges that officials charged that she had engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with the student, which she denies, and barred her from teaching courses that she had taught for years, according to the complaint.

University spokeswoman Lindsay Hamilton declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations, citing a policy not to comment on pending litigation.

“The University will take appropriate action in response to any court filings,” she said in an email. “It is worth noting that complaints filed in court only represent one side’s view of a case.”

The Hatchet reached out to Muhammad and other officials named in the complaint through a University spokeswoman. King did not immediately return a request for comment.

In March 2016, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, who is unnamed in court documents, filed a Title IX complaint against Woytowicz, his chemistry professor, alleging sexual harassment, according to the complaint.

Woytowicz received an email from Muhammad on March 17, 2016 informing her of the complaint. The email did not include details about the substance of the allegations including what specifically she was accused of, where and when the alleged actions occurred and how she would be able to mount a defense, according to the complaint.

In a March 23 meeting with Woytowicz to discuss the allegations, Muhammad allegedly asked questions about her dating life that she found intrusive and only described the allegations against her in vague terms as an “allegation of sexual harassment based on unequal power.”

“Defendant Muhammad had no interest in learning the truth of the accusations against Prof. Woytowicz, but had only an interest in making it as difficult as possible for her to establish her innocence of anything that might possibly have been included in the nebulous fog
of an asserted complaint against her,” the complaint states.

Woytowicz alleges that Muhammad then instructed her to avoid contact with potential witnesses, but the lack of information made it difficult for Woytowicz to discern which of her friends it would be improper for her to communicate with, according to the complaint.

Muhammad kept a notebook of the accusations against Woytowicz, and when she asked to see it during the meeting, Muhammad held the notebook above her head and seemed to “delight in this, as if playing a child’s game of keep away,” according to the complaint. He also allegedly became hostile toward Woytowicz and shouted questions at her at the end of the meeting.

The next day Muhammad sent Woytowicz a list of quotes purportedly taken from text messages between Woytowicz and the student who filed the complaint. Woytowicz claims that some of the quotes were false and others were taken out of context and wrongly framed as sexual innuendo, the complaint states.

In June 2016, Muhammad sent a general outline of the charges against her, according to the complaint. The complaint does not outline what those charges were but alleges that they were not detailed and did not sufficiently give her the chance to defend herself.

At a November meeting between Woytowicz, Muhammad, King, Eric Arnesen, the vice dean for faculty and administration in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, and lawyers for both sides, Muhammad said the investigation did not find enough evidence of sexual harassment, according to the complaint.

But at the meeting Muhammad allegedly charged that Woytowicz had engaged in inappropriate behavior under Title IX policies by engaging in a “verbal” sexual relationship with the student, a charge the complaint calls “bizarre” and a threat to free speech between faculty and students. Woytowicz denied violating Title IX policies.

“Defendants were determined to injure Prof. Woytowicz in her academic career by managing to find her guilty of anything that would allow them to punish her for being a woman complained against by a man,” the complaint states.

In an email this week, Woytowicz said the University’s investigation was one-sided and that officials ignored the evidence she supplied that could prove her innocence.

“To have all this destroyed because of a false complaint has been very hard for me,” she said in an email. “Even worse, GW recognized the complaint was false, but then invented new charges that are so broad that every student and faculty member is at risk.”

Muhammad proposed an “informal” resolution to the case where Woytowicz would accept a written reprimand and undergo training. The reprimand would allow officials to bar Woytowicz from teaching courses, according to the complaint.

In a series of emails and meetings over the next few months. Woytowicz alleges that officials retaliated against her for not agreeing to resolve the case.

In February 2017, King allegedly told her that she would not be teaching the summer Organic Chemistry course that she typically led. She was later banned from teaching in the chemistry department altogether, according to the complaint.

Three months later, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Christopher Bracey told her she would not be teaching the Science, Technology and Public Policy course in the school in the spring 2018 semester. Woytowicz charges that barring her from teaching is a violation of her union contract as a University faculty member, according to the complaint.

Woytowicz claimed to suffer multiple physical impairments as a result of the case including stress, weight loss, panic attacks and hair loss, according to the complaint.

In the document, she demands front pay and back pay for lost earnings, compensatory damages for mental anguish and more than $40,000 in attorney fees and punitive damages against the University.

On Dec. 22, the University asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that because GW is a private university, the First and Fifth Amendments don’t apply to University policies.

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