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Valencia v. The Board of Regents, University of New Mexico

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 16, 2018

CHRISTOPHER VALENCIA, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF REGENTS, University of New Mexico, ROBERT FRANK, in his individual capacity, CHAOUKI ABDALLAH, in his individual capacity, CAROL PARKER, in her individual capacity, MARK PECENY, in his individual capacity, LES FIELD, in his individual capacity, RONDA BRULOTTE, ERIN DEBENPORT, LINDSAY SMITH, FRANCIE CORDOVA, in her individual capacity, LAURA LYNN BUCHS, in her individual capacity, HEATHER COWAN, in her individual capacity, AARON JIM, in his individual capacity, ALEXANDRA TACEA, KAYLA AHMED, DANIELLE KABELLA, JOE SCEARCE, LAURA MORRIS, JULIA FULGHUM, in her individual capacity, ALBERT SENA, DENNIS OLGUIN, and SARAH LEISTER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. BRACK, JUDGE

         Once again the Court examines whether Plaintiff Christopher Valencia's complaint is clear enough for the case to proceed. The last time it examined Valencia's complaint in detail, the Court sent the complaint back for lack of clarity and concision. Many months and a few amended complaints later, Valencia has successfully stitched together a coherent narrative. However, it is still unclear who, exactly, is being sued for what. So yet again, the Court dismisses Valencia's complaint without prejudice, this time with specific directions on how to amend. Valencia has three business days to file an amended complaint as instructed.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         Valencia's start at UNM and the beginning of trouble

         Valencia was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology by the Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico (UNM) in 2012. (Doc. 76 ¶¶ 30-31.) For about three years, Valencia performed his duties without incident, even receiving a letter from Defendant Chaouki Abdallah, the Provost of the university, in June 2015, encouraging him “to maintain [his] current good trajectory toward tenure . . . .” (Id. ¶ 35.)

         But just days later, Defendant Les Field told Valencia that students from the anthropology department had filed a complaint against him with the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). (Id. ¶ 37.) Despite Valencia's attempts to find out more, Field would not elaborate on the substance of the complaints. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38.) Valencia heard no more about the OEO complaint until Field emailed him about two months later. (See Id. ¶¶ 40, 42.) In his email, Field told Valencia that Defendants Mark Peceny and Julia Fulghum had requested Valencia's recusal from grading comprehensive exams for the 2015-2016 year because of the ongoing OEO investigation. (Id. ¶ 40, 42.) Field told Valencia that his recusal from grading was an “action . . . that is disciplinary in nature without any formalized, written, or official reason for doing so.” (Id. ¶ 44.) Valencia complained to the University's Compliance Office, protesting that removing him from grading “constituted an adverse action taken without proper notification and in the absence of any opportunity to contest the decision.” (Id. ¶ 47.)

         In response to Valencia's complaint, the Senior Vice Provost, Defendant Carol Parker, investigated and determined that Field, Peceny, and Fulghum had recused Valencia from grading in an attempt to strike a balance between Valencia's and students' concerns in light of the complaints to the OEO. (Id. ¶ 48.) Such a recusal, Parker found, was a “temporary suspension” allowable under UNM policy. (Id.) On the strength of Parker's findings, Valencia remained suspended from grading in spite of his protests that he was unable to defend himself against unknown complaints and that no UNM policy justified his “temporary suspension.” (Id. ¶¶ 48, 50-52.)

         It was only in September 2015 that Valencia first learned about the substance of the complaints against him. (See Id. ¶ 56.) First, the OEO, acting through Defendant Laura Lynn Buchs, told Valencia that Defendant Danielle Kabella, one of his students, had accused him of sexual orientation discrimination. (Id.) Then the OEO notified Valencia that Defendant Kayla Ahmed, a former UNM graduate student, had accused him of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. (Id. ¶ 61-62.) Ultimately, the OEO determined that both complaints were not supported by probable cause. (Id. ¶¶ 60, 65.)

         By this time, Valencia suspected that three female professors, Defendants Ronda Brulotte, Erin Debenport, and Lindsay Smith had been engaging in a smear campaign against him. (See Id. ¶ 69.) He noticed that those who had lodged complaints against him were students mentored by Brulotte, Debenport, or Smith. (Id. ¶ 68.) He repeatedly told Field that other faculty had informed him about the three professors' attacks against him and that the three professors had made false allegations against him and coached student complaints. (See Id. ¶¶ 70, 73, 79.)

         Field told Valencia that he forwarded Valencia's concerns to the OEO office, but there is no evidence that the OEO did anything in response. (See Id. ¶¶ 77, 82-83.) Brulotte, Debenport, and Smith's attacks continued unabated. (See Id. ¶ 86.) For example, Brulotte told students that Valencia was under investigation for “sexual predation.” (Id. ¶ 84.) And in the presence of students at a local restaurant, Brulotte and Debenport high-fived each other as they proclaimed that they were “going to take Valencia down.” (Id. ¶ 128.) As a result, students dropped Valencia as their advisor and Valencia was removed from academic committees. (See Id. ¶ 86.) When later asked why nothing was being done, Field told Valencia that he had been instructed “to not address Valencia's request for relief from the hostile work environment.” (See Id. ¶ 88.)

         Investigation into anthropology department and original disciplinary action

         After repeated complaints from Valencia, the OEO finally launched a “departmental investigation” into discrimination and sexual harassment in the anthropology department. (See Id. ¶¶ 89-91.) During the investigation, the OEO threw university policies by the wayside. The OEO did not give Valencia an opportunity to respond to adverse claims, or even provide notice of what those claims were, despite policy requiring notice and an opportunity to respond. (See Id. ¶¶ 94-95, 98.) The OEO did not allow Valencia to identify favorable witnesses, in spite of policy requiring the OEO to do so. (Id. ¶ 100.) Those students who did reach out or submit statements on Valencia's behalf, the OEO chose not to interview. (Id. ¶¶ 107, 114.) And despite policy that limited the OEO to investigating claims brought within 90 or 180 days of the alleged conduct absent a finding of good cause, the OEO mainly investigated 12-month-old claims without identifying good cause for investigating the stale claims. (Id. ¶¶ 96-97, 108.)

         Apart from the OEO's conduct, the atmosphere surrounding the investigation was troubling. Students complained that they were under pressure to support the accusers against Valencia, and that those who refused were called “anti-feminist, ” dismissed as not understanding the seriousness of the claims against Valencia, or accused of victim blaming. (Id. ¶¶ 115-16, 118, 123.) Brulotte, Smith, and Debenport invited students for meetings to discuss “the situation in the department.” (Id. ¶ 121.) In those meetings, the three professors shared confidential information about their interactions with the OEO, the anthropology department administration, and the pending investigations. (Id.) Brulotte also posted on Facebook in a manner viewable by some students, making clear her opposition to Valencia and claiming that anyone who did not support her views “was not a feminist.” (See Id. ¶ 129.) As a result, students who did not believe the allegations against Valencia hesitated to come forward for fear of social backlash or retaliation from Brulotte, Smith, or Debenport. (See Id. ¶¶ 117, 122.)

         After nine months, the OEO released its findings in March 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 103, 133.) The OEO found that the overwhelming majority of allegations against Valencia lacked corroboration, but found probable cause to believe that Valencia had engaged in discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that Valencia subjected students to a sexually harassing hostile academic environment. (Id. ΒΆΒΆ 104-05.) After the OEO's findings were released, Peceny sent Valencia a notice of emergency suspension, from which Valencia learned that he was ...


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