Ex-graduate teaching assistant sues MSU for sex discrimination, retaliation

 

 

 

Alex Holloway

 

 

A former graduate teaching assistant has sued Mississippi State University, claiming she was fired last fall due to sex discrimination and retaliation for attempting to lodge a complaint against a male researcher. 

 

Autumn Dunn, who filed the suit in the U.S. District Court in the North District of Mississippi's Aberdeen Division, was a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences. According to her complaint, she worked under Professor Gary Ervin and his assistant, Gray Turnage, from Aug. 16, 2018, until her termination on Nov. 20, 2018. 

 

Dunn is seeking a jury trial and is asking the court for back pay, reinstatement or front pay in lieu of reinstatement, and further damages as determined by the court. 

 

In the complaint, Dunn accuses Turnage of several instances of inappropriate sexual innuendo, to herself and other females under his supervision. This included an inappropriate story, which the complaint describes as one about a male adviser receiving oral sex from a female student, with the dean of the college walking in on the incident while giving a tour to a potential student.  

 

Dunn's complaint also recounts the events of a trip to the Mid-South Aquatic Plant Management conference. Dunn and another female colleague rode with Turnage to Alabama, where they picked up "Dr. Fleming" on the way to the conference. During the trip, the complaint says, Turnage told the same inappropriate story though "no one ... had invited Turnage to elaborate on this story and it had not been on the topic of conversation." 

 

The complaint further alleges that on Nov. 5, at the conference, Turnage asked some of the graduate students to take photos. It says that when they told him they were too busy, Turnage said they had to and they were "slaves" while in graduate school. 

 

Throughout the conference, Turnage made a variety of sexually-charged remarks to Dunn, the complaint says, including telling her and another colleague after they declined to partake in a drinking game, "You know what they say about people who don't like attention. They like watching porn." 

 

On the night of Nov. 7, the complaint says, Turnage saw Dunn talking with a married man from the conference about his marital status. During the ride home from the conference, after dropping off Fleming, Turnage told Dunn "everyone at the conference knew" she had been attempting to hit on the man. He went on to say her behavior hadn't been as bad as other people who'd been banned for inappropriate behavior. Turnage then told "stories of a bisexual couple and a massage parlor room put on at a previous conference that employed prostitutes for attendees." 

 

Afterward, Dunn told other students she would discuss Turnage's behavior with Ervin. The complaint says Turnage knew of this and started talking to Ervin about Dunn's behavior at the conference. 

 

When Dunn met Ervin for a previously scheduled meeting to discuss research matters on Nov. 20, he handed her a letter of termination and support. At the same meeting, he canceled a conference in Texas that Dunn had prepared for and paid for, "without warning," according to the complaint. 

 

Dunn's suit accuses MSU of sex discrimination, noting that she "is a member of a protected class who has been consistently subjected to actions creating a hostile working environment for (Dunn) because of her gender and/or sex." It says the actions were in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

 

It further accuses the university of retaliation, saying that Dunn's efforts to report discrimination are protected activity. 

 

"The preemptory actions of Turnage were in retaliation for (Dunn's) knowledge of his inappropriate behavior and to poison Dr. Ervin in an attempt to save his own job," the complaint says. 

 

MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter declined to comment on the specifics of the case. 

 

"The university is aware of the legal complaint, but any comment at this time would be premature and inappropriate," Salter said. "MSU will speak through our response to the complaint."

 

 

 

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