San Francisco State University (SFSU) hired Rashmi Gupta in 2006 as a tenure track assistant professor in the School of Social Work. Generally, tenure track professors work for a six year term. After that, SFSU decides whether or not to promote a tenure track professor to the position of associate professor and award lifetime tenure.
Dr. Gupta initially faced some hurdles when she began teaching at SFSU. Her student evaluations were lower than average; however, Dr. Gupta was praised for her efforts in research, scholarship and publication. By 2009, Dr. Gupta had overcome her initial challenges and was receiving positive reviews from students and peer evaluators.
In 2009, Dr. Gupta and several other women of color in the School of Social Work lodged a complaint with the provost to express their concerns about the abuse of power, bullying, micromanagement and a hostile work environment at SFSU. At a follow up meeting, the women expressed concern about the Director of the School of Social Work, and more generally, about discrimination against people of color on campus.
Less than two months after Dr. Gupta lodged her complaints, she received a negative performance review. Many of the criticisms in the review were inaccurate. Dr. Gupta then emailed a colleague complaining that SFSU was hostile toward women of color, and named two individuals for creating the hostile work environment, Don Taylor and Rita Takahashi. At a meeting in March 2010, Dr. Taylor told Dr. Gupta that he knew about the emails, and threatened “to get even with [her].”
During the 2010-2011 academic year, Dr. Gupta submitted paperwork to request early tenure with the support of her department and tenure committees. Dr. Taylor denied her tenure. Dr. Gupta then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging discrimination and retaliation. She also grieved the denial of her tenure. The matter went to arbitration and the arbitrator ordered SFSU to review Dr. Gupta for tenure the following year.
In the 2011-2012 academic year, students and the departmental tenure committee praised Dr. Gupta’s teaching and work. However, Dr. Taylor again recommended against Dr. Gupta’s tenure. Dr. Taylor told the Interim Director of the School of Social Work that he would not approve Dr. Gupta because of her attitude and because she made SFSU “look bad.” Dr. Taylor stated he would “get even” with Dr. Gupta for complaining about discrimination and that there are “consequences” for such actions. Tenure was granted to another professor who had achieved significantly less standards than Dr. Gupta. However, this newly tenured professor had not filed a complaint against SFSU.
Dr. Gupta again grieved the denial of her tenure and SFSU reevaluated her. Dr. Taylor once more recommended against granting her tenure. The provost and president of SFSU concurred with Dr. Taylor, and then terminated Dr. Gupta in 2014.
Dr. Gupta sued SFSU for discrimination and retaliation in state court. At trial, she presented comparator evidence that the professor who had been granted tenure was similarly situated to Dr. Gupta in all material respects. However, the one distinguishing factor was that the other professor had not filed a complaint against SFSU. The jury found against Dr. Gupta on her discrimination cause of action, but found in her favor on her retaliation cause of action.
SFSU appealed, contending that the trial court erred when it allowed Dr. Gupta to present comparator evidence without showing that Dr. Gupta was clearly superior to the other professor. The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, rejected SFSU’s contentions, stating that “evidence that an employer treated similarly situated employees outside of plaintiff’s protected class ‘more favorably’ is probative of the employer’s discriminatory or retaliatory intent.” The appellate court upheld the trial court’s judgment that SFSU retaliated against Dr. Gupta. (Gupta v. Trustees of the California State University, Case No. A151763 (filed September 26, 2019)).
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