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Former Employee Sues Harvard For Racial Discrimination, Failure to Accommodate Her Disability, and Retaliation

Massachusetts Hall, Fall 2017
Mass. Hall, the seat of Harvard's Central Administration.

Former Office of Technology Development employee Melissa Defay filed a lawsuit against Harvard Wednesday alleging the University racially discriminated against her, failed to accommodate her disability, and retaliated against her when she raised these concerns.

The 16-page complaint — filed in Massachusetts Superior Court — alleges that Harvard Senior Associate Provost and Chief Technology Officer Isaac T. Kohlberg and OTD Director of Financial Operations Marie Letelier directed discriminatory statements and actions toward her. Defay, who wrote in the complaint that she is an African-American woman, described the discrimination as including “race-based comments, a discriminatory and illegal race-based failure to promote [her], and discriminatory actions based upon [her] disability.”

Defay is requesting compensation for damages, legal fees, and other awards that the court “deems just and proper.”

Defay began working at Harvard in 2003 as a financial assistant for Harvard University Dining Services. She then joined OTD in 2005 as a financial coordinator and assumed the role of Senior Financial Administrator in 2016, according to the complaint. Kohlberg also appointed Defay to work as Director of Financial Operations on an interim basis on several occasions, the complaint states.

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The complaint also notes that Defay suffers from nummular headache syndrome, a neurological disorder similar to migraines, and that her son has been diagnosed with a form of autism. During her time working at Harvard, her employers were allegedly aware of this disorder and for nearly 10 years had granted her accommodations, including flex time to attend medical appointments and permission to work remotely on Mondays.

Defay applied to the permanent position of Director of Financial Operations in September 2016, according to the complaint. At the time, Kohlberg asked her to assume the director position on an interim basis in addition to her role as a financial administrator, along with another employee in the department.

In the complaint, Defay lists several instances in which Kohlberg allegedly did not treat her equally to other candidates vying for the position. Shortly after Letelier was hired as the new director, Defay also charges that she was not accommodated for her disability.

University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke declined to comment on the suit in an email Saturday.

“I can’t comment on any ongoing litigation, however, I can assure you that Harvard is deeply committed to fostering and maintaining an inclusive, diverse, and safe work environment for all,” O’Rourke wrote.

Kohlberg and Letelier referred to the University’s statement when asked for comment.

Shortly after being appointed interim director, Defay brought concerns to Kohlberg that she would be working two full-time jobs without sufficient compensation, according to the suit. Kohlberg allegedly responded by saying that Defay was “focused on minutiae” and that she should be “grateful someone like her” was given the position.

Kohlberg also allegedly told Defay that she “would not be meeting with any other OTD directors in the interim position,” a move that Defay saw as racially motivated. The complaint also states that Kohlberg made racist statements when he “engaged in a loud conversation” with a former colleague near Defay's desk, saying he was an “elitist” and does not believe in “social equality.”

The lawsuit also points to instances in which Defay alleges she was excluded from the hiring process for the director position. The suit states that Defay had not been contacted by the hiring committee for an interview when they began interviewing candidates in October 2016. Defay was informed at that time that Kohlberg had said he was concerned about Defay’s “physical presence” serving as an impediment during meetings with university officials and high-level executives.

Several weeks later, a human resources department recruiter interviewed Defay over the phone, unlike other candidates, who initially met with the hiring committee, according to the complaint. Defay eventually conducted two interviews with two members of the committee. Other candidates, however, met with all eight committee members, according to the suit.

Kohlberg informed Defay that she had not been chosen as the new director on Nov. 23, 2016. According to the complaint, Kohlberg told Defay that Marie Letelier — the new director — had “superior credentials,” but Defay later learned Letelier only had a bachelor’s degree even though a master’s degree was required for the position. Defay was one semester short of receiving her master’s degree at the time.

Defay also states that Kohlberg ordered her to train Letelier. Defay found Letelier to be “incompetent” as she allegedly was unable to perform multiple essential tasks to the job such as performing “royalty distributions” and working with “complex spreadsheets.” Defay states in the complaint that Harvard’s decision to hire Letelier, who she described as a white woman, over herself constituted racism.

Letelier allegedly began questioning Defay's disability accommodation in December 2016 and told Defay that she could “get another job.” Letelier then required Defay and another African-American employee, Leota Smith, to attend a meeting where Letelier explained a new department-wide assessment into flex time. Defay and Smith were the only African Americans in the finance department and the only two employees invited to the meeting, according to the complaint.

In a March 2017 meeting, Letelier allegedly accused Defay of failing to inform employees in OTD that she used a flexible schedule, despite having used this modified schedule for many years. Letelier further stated that she “was not going to accommodate Ms. Defay” and if she wished, Defay could appeal for these accommodations, according to the complaint.

Defay then took a three-month leave from OTD as her health declined. During her leave, Defay’s colleagues were allowed to keep their flex schedules and Defay’s personal belongings were either rearranged or thrown away, according to the complaint. Defay later returned to work but alleged Letelier grew even more hostile toward her, leaving Defay out of staff emails and closely monitoring her lunch breaks.

The “most egregious” part of Letelier’s hostility was continuing to deny Defay of her flex schedule, a move that forced Defay to resign, the complaint states.

Defay alleges that she suffered “severe emotional distress and an exacerbation of her neurological condition.” Furthermore, the complaint states she continues to suffer due to the actions of Kohlberg, Letelier, and other Harvard employees.

John F. Tocci — an attorney for Defay — wrote in an email Friday that the complaint is “fairly extensive and clear." Tocci also said that in the state of Massachusetts, “a discrimination complaint must file a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before proceeding to court,” which suggests that his team filed a charge with either commission.

“While Ms. Defay separated from Harvard in June of 2017, her damages persist and she looks forward to challenging Harvard’s illegal acts in this litigation - for herself and other Harvard employees who have faced institutional discrimination outside of the limelight of academia,” Tocci wrote.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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