Harvard went to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) Friday to appeal a discrimination judgement of over $1.2 million that was awarded to a former Harvard security guard over two years ago.
The guard, Viatcheslav "Steve" Abramian, sued Harvard for discrimination on the basis of national origin, claiming he was fired because he complained about another guard's anti-Russian slurs and behavior during his time at Harvard.
But in oral arguments before the SJC Friday, Harvard argued that the trial judge had erred in instructing the jury. The trial judge's instruction was, according to both parties, the most significant of five stated reasons for appeal. If Harvard prevails in its appeal, the case will be sent back to the trial court and a new jury will consider the case.
The trial judge had instructed the jury to rule in favor of Abramian if they did not believe Harvard's stated reason for firing Abramian, according to Harvard's attorney in the case, Allan A. Ryan Jr.
But Ryan claims a decision that Harvard was not telling the truth does not necessarily mean Abramian was discriminated against. He could have been fired, Ryan said, because his supervisor just didn't like him.
"I think it is entirely possible that the jury returned a large verdict for Mr. Abramian because he was not the teacher's pet," he said. "The law prohibits discrimination; it doesn't prevent cronyism."
However, Jonathan Barter, Abramian's attorney, said he thought Harvard was being disingenuous in their appeal.
"[Harvard is] saying 'The jury didn't buy our first argument. Now that we've lost, give us another chance, maybe we can come up with a new reason [for having fired Abramian],'" he said. "Neither Harvard nor any other employer should be rewarded for its own mendacity. The obligation on their part should be to tell the truth."
During the arguments, SJC chief justice Margaret H. Marshall recused herself from the proceedings. She was the general counsel for Harvard at the time when the discrimination suit was filed, and had also ordered an internal investigation of Abramian's charges that found no wrongdoing on Harvard's part.
In an unusual move, both sides in this case agreed to appeal the case directly to the SJC, bypassing a lower appellate court. The SJC is the ultimate authority on the meaning and application of Massachusetts law, and is the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere.
The justices will rule on whether the jury's finding that Harvard was not truthful in giving reasons for Abramian's firing was sufficient to find in Abramian's favor.
An SJC verdict is not expected for months.
As is standard for appeals of this nature, no witnesses were called during the approximate half-hour of courtroom time spent on the case.
Instead, five justices quizzed the lawyers about the legal principles behind their cases.
Harvard's appeal is being tried by Allan A. Ryan Jr., an attorney in the Office of the General Counsel, and G. Marshall Moriarty, an outside attorney with the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray.
The case is Abramian v. President and Fellows of Harvard College.