UM paid nearly $200K to settle 2004 suit against provost Philbert

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan paid nearly $200,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that Provost Martin Philbert wrongly laid off an employee partly because he preferred to keep on a female researcher with whom he allegedly had an inappropriate relationship, according to terms of the settlement released Monday.

The 2004 lawsuit was settled the next year when Philbert was an associate professor in the UM School of Public Health. 

Martin Philbert, University of Michigan, Provost and Executive Vice-President for Academic Affairs, speaks during commencement exercises in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 4, 2019.

Philbert is on leave from the university as an investigation is underway into several allegations of sexual misconduct that emerged against him last month.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald issued a statement after the university released the settlement to The Detroit News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

"Nowhere in the 41-page complaint did the plaintiff allege that there was any sexual relationship," Fitzgerald said. "Discovery in the case confirmed that the plaintiff was not claiming there was a sexual relationship and the settlement was not based on any evidence of such a relationship."

"As the university announced Jan. 22, we have retained an outside law firm to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct involving Provost Philbert," Fitzgerald continued. "It is critical that the investigators be allowed to collect the facts."

Robert Vercruysse, the lawyer for the plaintiff, Thomas Komorowski, declined to comment.

In 2001, Philbert, a professor of toxicology, recruited Komorowski to be a research associate in his laboratory, according to the lawsuit.

But Philbert laid off Komorowski in December 2003, prompting Komorowski to file a wrongful termination lawsuit in Washtenaw County Circuit Court that included scores of allegations including age and sex discrimination, conspiracy and more.

Lawyers for the university argued that Komorowski was laid off because grant funding for his position had run out.

Additionally, UM's lawyers said in filings with the suit that Komorowski had no experience with the scientific techniques used by others in the lab, that he received 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 lack of initiative.

The alleged relationship between Philbert and his female colleague was alluded to in depositions as among the reasons that Philbert laid off Komorowski instead of the female researcher, who moved to Chicago and worked out of her home.

The depositions included questions about behavior in the laboratory that included hugs between Philbert and the female researcher, and an incident in which she allegedly patted him on the buttocks. The depositions also included questions about travel to conferences together and an alleged nude photo of the female researcher.

Philbert and the female researcher were married to other people, according to documents filed with the suit, and denied any inappropriate behavior.

Richard Seryak, a lawyer who represented UM in the suit and has since died, wrote that there was no evidence in the allegations; the nude photo was a joke, any touching was horseplay and Komorowski never saw or heard of the alleged incidents until after his layoff.

After a judge dismissed some of Komorowski's claims and he was preparing to appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals, UM paid $191,937.50 to settle the lawsuit in November 2005.

If paid today, the settlement would be worth $253,529.49, accounting for inflation.