UM defended Provost Martin Philbert against sexual misconduct allegations in 2004

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

 Ann Arbor — The University of Michigan, which suspended Provost Martin Philbert last month over allegations of sexual misconduct, was aware of at least one previous complaint against him.

A 2004 lawsuit accused Philbert, then a faculty member in UM's School of Public Health, of having an inappropriate relationship with a female researcher who worked in his laboratory. Both vigorously denied having an improper relationship.

The alleged relationship was alluded to in the lawsuit as among the reasons that Philbert laid off a male researcher in his laboratory, according to the wrongful termination lawsuit filed in Washtenaw County Circuit Court.

Martin Philbert, during commencement exercises at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

Within the lawsuit are scores of allegations lodged by former UM research associate Thomas Komorowski, who filed the complaint over his December 2003 layoff.

But also woven through the lawsuit are suggestions that Philbert, a nationally known toxicology professor, and the former UM researcher may have had a relationship that went beyond professional: She allegedly grabbed Philbert's buttocks one night in the lab; they hugged in the workplace and attended out-of-state conferences together, the suit alleged.

The complaint also raised allegations that Philbert offered to show a nude photo of the researcher to a male colleague.

Both Philbert and the woman were married to other people, according to court documents. 

Lawyers for UM denied Komorowski's claims, saying he lost his job because grant funding for his position ran out. They also said in the court documents that he had no experience with the scientific techniques used by others in the lab, that he got a written warning about low productivity after his first year, that he demonstrated a lack of mastery on a piece of equipment that he was recruited to work on, and that he showed a "distinct lack of initiative."

A judge dismissed some of Komorowski's claims before the university settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount in 2005.

Philbert became dean of UM's School of Public Health in 2011 and was elevated in 2017 to provost. It's unknown what impact, if any, the complaint had on the decision to suspend him last month. 

Asked about the lawsuit's claims, why the university settled and whether the allegations were considered when UM promoted Philbert, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald declined comment.

"As you know, it is the university’s standard practice to release all settlement agreements through the FOIA process," Fitzgerald said via email. "We are confident the university’s FOIA office will respond appropriately to your request regarding this settlement agreement and the other documents you have requested. We have nothing further to share at this time."

The Detroit News requested the settlement agreement through FOIA on Jan. 24, but the university has not yet provided the document.

Komorowski and his lawyer, Robert Vercruysse, declined to comment on the suit. Philbert and the researcher could not be reached by phone or email. An attempt to contact Philbert at his home also was unsuccessful.

Before UM settled the suit, a lawyer for the defendants tried to get the alleged interactions between Philbert and the researcher excluded from any potential trial, calling them "irrelevant" and "prejudicial" and saying they had "great potential to confuse and mislead the jury ... ." 

"Permitting the introduction of such evidence will cause the jury to decide this case upon an emotional, rather than factual or legal basis," wrote Richard Seryak, a lawyer who was based in Detroit at Miller Canfield but is now deceased.

Seryak said there was no evidence in these allegations: the nude photo was a joke and any touching was "alleged horseplay."

"Plaintiff never observed or even heard of these occurrences until after his layoff," he wrote.

UM President Mark Schlissel put Philbert on administrative leave Jan. 21 and hired Washington, D.C.-based WilmerHale to conduct an investigation after multiple sexual misconduct accusations emerged against the provost.

Officials at UM have declined to speak about the sexual misconduct investigation and the 2004 lawsuit, saying they want the investigation to conclude first. 

When The News asked to speak with Schlissel, Fitzgerald said the president "will not be granting any media interviews on this topic while the investigation remains active."

Schlissel, however, spoke with student journalists at the Michigan Daily last month as part of a monthly arrangement between the campus newspaper and the president.

During the discussion, Schlissel acknowledged that Philbert had been on medical leave for part of the fall semester due to a health matter. Philbert's leave was not announced to protect his privacy, though it was part of the December meeting materials of the Board of Regents so it was in the public domain, the UM president said.

Schlissel also told the student newspaper he first became aware of the allegations against Philbert Jan. 16-17. But he did not specifically address when the university became aware of the allegations.

"We take allegations of sexual misconduct with the utmost seriousness, the 16th and the 17th was the first I became aware of any allegation whatsoever," Schlissel said. 

Philbert is on leave during the investigation but still receiving his $570,340 salary.

Besides provost, Philbert also holds the title of executive vice president for academic affairs. He is UM's chief budget officer and its chief academic officer, collaborating with the president to set and fund academic priorities for 19 schools and colleges.

He came to UM in 1995 an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and was appointed the school's senior associate dean for research in 2004, the year before the university settled the lawsuit with Komorowski, who worked for UM for 20 years. 

The suit alleged Philbert "lured" Komorowski away from another UM lab in 2001 to manage Philbert's lab as a senior research associate. Philbert sought out Komorowski because of his special skills with a microscope, and after the female researcher left the position to move with her family to Chicago, according to the suit.

But after relocating, the researcher returned to work for Philbert's lab, though she lived in Illinois.

Though Komorowski's $63,000 salary was funded with various grants, according to the lawsuit, Philbert told him in September 2003 that an asthma grant was running out that funded his position and he would be losing his job at the end of the calendar year.

Komorowski's lawsuit alleges more was going on than that.

In later arguments, Komorowski alleged that "Philbert's favorite young female researcher" wanted to return to Philbert's lab full-time in 2002, so the professor and others conspired to remove Komorowski.

"Defandants arranged to strip plaintiff of his position in the lab and to reinstate (the researcher) to her old position under the guise of a RIF (reduction in force), then retaliated against plaintiff when he complained ...," according to documents in the lawsuit.

The suit alleged that Philbert falsely claimed that Komorowski's salary was funded primarily from the lost asthma grant, "when in fact he never even worked on the grant." 

Depositions taken in the case were included in the lawsuit's filings that referenced the alleged relationship between Philbert and the researcher in the context of the sex discrimination claim.

"I find it interesting that I'm being RIF-ed for a grant that I don't work on but yet they are retaining a woman that lives in Chicago that actually does work on the grant," Komorowski said in a deposition.

Komorowski also said a doctoral assistant told him he once saw the woman "grabbing Martin's rear end," and that later the same evening, she did the same to the doctoral assistant "to make it look like it was no big thing." 

In a deposition, the doctoral assistant denied seeing her touch Philbert in any way.

During a deposition, the researcher said she was friends with Philbert, attended his wedding with her spouse and had been to his home with colleagues from the lab.

She said Philbert had not visited her Chicago lab but she and her husband had met him once in Chicago at a restaurant.

While being deposed, the woman said she had given Philbert a hug in the office, that he had given her a hug, and that Philbert may have given her a kiss on the cheek.

But she said she didn't recall ever grabbing his buttocks.

She also said she had a nude photo of herself on her computer.

"It was something I emailed my husband and that was it," the researcher said. 

When Philbert was deposed, he recalled the researcher touching his backside one afternoon.

"As I recall, there were a group of us in the hallway adjacent to the lab," he said. "I don't remember the substance of the conversation but that it was fairly jovial, at which point (the researcher) made a comment and to my recollection smacked me on the butt."

Philbert was also asked if his relationship with the woman had anything to do with choosing her over Komorowski.

Philbert responded: "I said no."