A federal appeals court has cleared the path for a professor’s lawsuit against the University of New England, alleging officials there took away some of her teaching duties and other responsibilities after she accused her department chairman of sexual harassment.

Lara Carlson sued her employer in 2016 for violating her civil rights under state and federal law. UNE denied the charges, and a judge in U.S. District Court in Portland ruled in favor of the private college last year. But on Friday, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned that order and sent the case back to the lower court, where it could now go to trial. Carlson is seeking unspecified damages from UNE.

“We’re thrilled,” said David Kreisler, one of Carlson’s attorneys. “All Lara wanted was to get her day in court. Now she’ll have that chance.”

A spokesperson for the school declined to comment Monday on the ongoing case.

Carlson was hired in 2009 and is an associate professor in the school’s Westbrook College of Health Professions in Biddeford. She was awarded tenure in 2014. Carlson does research in motorsports physiology, such as analyzing the health challenges associated with competitive stock car racing.

Paul Visich is the chairman of the Exercise and Sport Performance Department, where he was initially Carlson’s supervisor. In her complaint, Carlson said Visich made inappropriate sexual comments to her, sent her inappropriate emails and touched her inappropriately in 2012. She said she notified the human resources department that fall but the school took no action.

In her lawsuit, Carlson said she suffered a series of professional consequences for her report over the next three years. Visich gave her a negative performance evaluation and removed her as head of a student college bowl team. Carlson was also removed from advising students and from teaching certain classes, including one she had developed. The college dean was appointed her supervisor, and she was transferred out of the Exercise and Sport Performance Department. Court documents show she was eventually placed in the Physical Therapy Department, where Carlson said she has fewer teaching opportunities.

In response, the school claimed Carlson “unreasonably failed to take advantage of the corrective opportunities provided by UNE” or exhaust her administrative remedies.

In November 2014, Carlson filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Carlson requested a right-to-sue letter before the commission released a final statement, and she received the letter in November 2015.

U.S. District Judge Jon Levy granted a request for summary judgment by UNE in July 2017. He wrote in his order that Carlson had failed to prove that the school’s actions were retaliation for her harassment complaints, and he said it was clear her transfer to another department was voluntary. Carlson immediately appealed that decision.

In the decision Friday from the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Sandra Lynch wrote that a reasonable jury could find that the events described in Carlson’s complaint would not have happened but for her report against Visich.

“Carlson has demonstrated that there are genuine disputes of material fact as to whether UNE misled Carlson into transferring departments,” Lynch wrote. “There is also a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Carlson’s transfer was the true reason for her change in course assignments.”

Both Carlson and Visich are still employed at UNE. Kreisler said he did not know when the next court proceeding would take place in the case.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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