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Sherley’s Discrimination Claim Rejected

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has denied employment discrimination claims by former professor James L. Sherley, who left MIT on June 30, 2007 after an unsuccessful hunger strike to have his tenure case re-examined, according to documents provided to The Tech by Sherley.

Sherley filed a complaint on Sept. 11, 2007 through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that his termination from MIT violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The EEOC replied that the evidence Sherley provided “fails to indicate that a violation of the law occurred” and that his claim was filed more than 300 days after he was informed of the decision to deny him tenure (on Jan. 3, 2005). According to Title VII, discrimination claims must be filed within 300 days from the date an employer tells a complainant about a harm.

One key question is whether the “harm” was Sherley’s denial of tenure in 2005, or his termination from work on June 30, 2007. Sherley argued that the harm happened on June 30, 2007, and he said that his complaint was not made too late. In a letter, he said that “the crucial moment of harm … was my fire from MIT due to illegal racial discrimination on June 30, 2007.”

A letter dated Feb. 4, 2008 from EEOC Boston office director Robert L. Sanders cited Delaware State College v. Ricks, a 1980 Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that a professor who was denied tenure received “harm” when he learned about his tenure denial, not on the last day of his employment.

Another question is whether, if the commission were to consider Sherley’s claim, they would find that MIT had illegally discriminated against Sherley. A Feb. 4, 2008 letter from Sanders said that even if Sherley had filed his charges sooner, the commission would have found that MIT’s reasons for denying Sherley tenure were valid and nondiscriminatory:

“[MIT] articulated bona-fide, legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons for its actions that may have been unfair to you but they were not causally connected or directly related to your partition [sic] and opposition in a legally protected activity that is enforced by the EEOC.”

In a February 22, 2008 letter, Sherley wrote to Governor Deval Patrick, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Attorney General Martha Oakley requesting that the EEOC’s denial be investigated. Sherley wrote that the EEOC chose its date of “harm” to his detriment. He said that a later date should have applied since MIT reversed his first termination notice and repeatedly extended his appointment. Sherley also wrote that it was unfair for the EEOC to accept MIT’s termination reasons without thoroughly investigating them. He also alleged that racial discrimination inside the EEOC may have led to the rejection of his complaint. It is unclear whether the EEOC’s denial will be investigated.

When the EEOC determines that it will not investigate a claim or that no discrimination has occurred, it issues a “Right to Sue” letter that entitles the complainant to file a discrimination lawsuit within 90 days. The EEOC sent Sherley such a form on Dec. 27, 2007, so under the law he has only 90 days from then to file a Title VII discrimination lawsuit against MIT.

Sherley offered the commission more information in a letter dated Jan. 10, 2008, including a brief timeline of his firing, and additional allegations that MIT failed to notify him about health benefits (in violation of a the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act). Sherley also wrote that he had two witnesses who could testify that MIT was withholding information necessary to transfer his federal research grants from MIT to the Boston Biomedical Research Institute.

For more information on Sherley’s complaint, including copies of the EEOC filings, visit The Tech’s Web site at http://www-tech.mit.edu/V128/N8/sherley/.

—Nick Semenkovich