The new dean of law at the University of New Brunswick is facing allegations of sexism, harassment, and, in one case, threats of violence by two of his former law school colleagues in Florida.

The two female professors say in court documents that Jeremy Levitt contributed to a hostile environment and one says he helped block her advancement at the Florida A&M University College of Law because she is a woman.

None of the allegations by the two women has been proven, and both cases remain before the courts in Florida. The lawsuits are against Florida A&M University and do not name Levitt as a defendant.

Last month, just four months after he started his job as dean of law at UNB, Levitt took an administrative leave from the position.

One of the two Florida professors, Barbara Bernier, said in her court filing that Levitt "repeatedly harassed and degraded" her because of her gender. The other, Jennifer Smith, alleges he sabotaged her bid for promotion because she is a woman.

Levitt denies allegations in lawsuit

In a statement to CBC News, Levitt denies the allegations in the two Florida lawsuits.

"Plaintiffs in an action, in America as here, can allege anything they want in pleadings, true or not," he says.

"The unproven and malicious allegations were filed by disgruntled former and current employees and contain entirely false, regurgitated, distorted and defamatory claims that were, to my knowledge, dismissed by the university years ago."

Levitt says the Florida lawsuits are "largely" pay-equity claims against the university, not against him, and "have nothing to do with my leave of absence from UNB."

Levitt's current leave from UNB came after three female professors scaled back their teaching, citing medical reasons. One law student, Jordan Thompson, complained in a letter to the student newspaper about "random class cancellations, marks from last semester not returned [and] the disappearance of professors."

UNB unaware of allegations

UNB issued a written statement suggesting it did not know of the allegations when it hired Levitt.

Spokesman David Stonehouse said there was a "thorough hiring process" headed by a search committee that included law professors, another UNB dean, a student, a university senate representative, and a UNB vice-president.

"The process included an industry-standard background check by an independent personnel agency," Stonehouse said. "In this case, the agency's background check returned nothing of concern."

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Barbara Bernier alleges Jeremy Leavitt made "repeated derogatory comments ... about women" at Florida A&M College of Law (University of Charlotte Law School)

Levitt's written statement said he was not aware of the lawsuits "until very recently or of any specific allegations against me before receiving the pleadings three weeks ago. None of these allegations have been put to me and I have never been given an opportunity to respond to them."

Bernier's court filing said Levitt's actions included "repeated derogatory comments … about women, false accusations of incompetence and unprofessionalism, intimidation, and insults."

She accused the Florida A&M law school of paying male professors more than their female counterparts, and said the university and the law school did nothing to address her concerns.

Bernier, who left Florida A&M to teach at the University of Charlotte Law School in North Carolina, filed her initial lawsuit in state court in 2013, but it was transferred to federal court last year. She turned down an interview request from CBC News.

Florida A&M denies allegations

Florida A&M denied all of Bernier's accusations in a court filing, and pointed to its "strong officially promulgated user-friendly" policy against harassment and discrimination, which she could have used.

It said any decisions about Bernier's salary or position followed university policies and were "for legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons."

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Prof. Jennifer Smith alleges Jeremy Levitt threatened her through a relative after she filed a grievance. (Florida A&M College of Law)

Court documents say the university and Bernier tried to resolve the case through a mediator, but failed to reach an agreement.

The second lawsuit, by Prof. Jennifer Smith, contains more allegations against Levitt. Smith still teaches at Florida A&M.

Smith alleges Levitt, who was associate dean at the time:

  • Sabotaged her attempts to be promoted "by replacing positive reviews of her scholarship [in her file] with negative ones by unqualified authors."
  • Called university officials to lobby against her promotion to full professor.
  • Make "some threatening comments" to one of Smith's relatives after she filed a grievance, "specifically implying that people on his behalf were going to harm Plaintiff physically."

American Bar Association reviewed accreditation

Smith alleged Levitt was demoted from associate dean after the American Bar Association recommended the demotion in a report on its accreditation review of the law school in September, 2012.

Jeremy Levitt issues the following statement to CBC News:

"The Florida lawsuits are largely pay equity claims against Florida A&M University (FAMU) not me. FAMU denies all of the allegations as do I. The unproven and malicious allegations were filed by disgruntled former and current employees and contain entirely false, regurgitated, distorted and defamatory claims that were, to my knowledge, dismissed by the university years ago.

The Florida law suits have nothing to do with my leave of absence from UNB.

I was not aware of the actions until very recently or of any specific allegations against me before receiving the pleadings three weeks ago. None of these allegations have been put to me and I have never been given an opportunity to respond to them. Plaintiffs in an action, in America as here, can allege anything they want in pleadings, true or not. I have seen the American Bar Association report. It does not recommended that I be demoted and have no participation in leadership, contrary to the pleadings. To my knowledge, I have never been the subject of a police investigation, contrary to the pleadings. 
It is abundantly clear that those persons who are uncomfortable with the change that I represent at UNB are seeking to use the media to discredit me. This is quite unfortunate for UNB, our proud alums and my family who moved to New Brunswick to make a better life.
Since I am likely to be deposed in the actions my legal representative has advised me not to make any further statement."

​But in his statement to CBC News, Levitt says he has seen the ABA report and, contrary to Smith's claim, "it does not recommend that I be demoted and have no participation in leadership.

A report by the ABA dated January 2013, available on the Florida A&M website, says the law school had "an inhospitable environment" for women, gays, and lesbians, and said faculty spoke of "alleged abuse of power" by an associate dean, which Smith alleges is a reference to Levitt.

Smith alleges the ABA recommended Levitt be demoted but alleges "his demotion was back-dated to appear as if he voluntarily resigned before the ABA arrived." The ABA report from January 2013 says the associate dean resigned before the ABA team visited Florida A&M.

An ABA spokesperson would not confirm the existence of the separate September 2012 report that Smith describes.

Smith's court filing says the Florida A&M campus police investigated her claims about Levitt's "threatening comments" and recommended the university act on them, but the university did nothing.

"To my knowledge, I have never been the subject of a police investigation, contrary to the pleadings," Levitt told CBC in his statement.

Smith's court filing goes on to describe a long procedural debate over her qualifications for a promotion to full professor, as well as a battle with the administration over access to her files. She says she was repeatedly denied promotion despite positive evaluations of her teaching.

University's bid to have suit dismissed rejected

Florida A&M denies all her allegations as well.

The university says Smith's suit "must fail" because she didn't suffer "an adverse employment action" and there was no change to her employment. It says any alleged actions the university took were because of her "inability to meet the requirement of the promotion she sought, and the specific performance standards required for that position."

Florida A&M tried to have her lawsuit thrown out of court. The university argued she did not follow the proper procedure with federal and state agencies that investigate workplace discrimination.

But in December the judge in the case rejected the university's bid to dismiss the suit. Smith's suit was also transferred from state court to federal court.

Smith did not respond to requests for an interview from CBC News.

UNB won't comment on how the new information about the lawsuits might affect Levitt's status.

In his statement, Levitt suggests that the information has come out now because he has enemies at UNB.

"It is abundantly clear that those persons who are uncomfortable with the change that I represent at UNB are seeking to use the media to discredit me," he said. "This is quite unfortunate for UNB, our proud alums and my family who moved to New Brunswick to make a better life."

As a likely witness in the Florida lawsuits, Levitt says, he won't discuss the cases any further.