ST. BONAVENTURE — St. Bonaventure University is arguing a Wiccan professor’s discrimination lawsuit should be thrown out, saying she waited too long to file her complaint.
Attorneys for St. Bonaventure on Friday made their first response to Dr. Pauline Hoffmann’s lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, which alleges university officials denied her a promotion to provost and forced her to resign as a dean because she is a Wiccan and a woman.
Bond, Schoeneck and King PLLC, a Buffalo law firm representing the university, filed a motion to dismiss asking U.S. District Judge William Skretny to dismiss the lawsuit because Hoffmann didn’t file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days of the alleged discrimination.
Plaintiffs must file a complaint with the EEOC prior to filing a federal discrimination lawsuit. In New York state, EEOC complaints must be made within 300 days of the alleged discrimination.
Hoffmann filed her EEOC complaint Feb. 19, more than 300 days after she was passed over for the provost position, then submitted her resignation letter and officially stepped down as a dean, St. Bonaventure’s attorneys noted in their motion to dismiss.
“Dr. Hoffmann’s claims occurred well outside of the 300 day limitations period,” the motion read, adding, “and Dr. Hoffmann has otherwise failed to set forth any factual allegations to support a plausible claim for relief.”
St. Bonaventure officials once again declined to comment on the case Friday. Tom Missel, the university’s chief communications officer, has said it’s not the university’s policy to comment on personnel and legal matters.
Hoffmann’s attorney Richard Perry, of the Law Office of Lindy Korn in Buffalo, declined to comment on the potential untimeliness of the complaint.
“We will be filing papers in response and we don’t want to jump the gun on our response,” Perry told the Olean Times Herald, adding they have 21 days to respond to St. Bonaventure’s motion.
Hoffmann’s Title VII lawsuit, filed May 28, alleges the discriminatory behavior began after Hoffmann said she was a Wiccan in an email to St. Bonaventure’s former vice president of communications in the fall of 2011.
Hoffmann, then-interim dean of the Jandoli School of Communication, said she did so because the university’s student TV station, SBU-TV, asked her to do an interview about Wicca.
The lawsuit alleges that the following semester, as Hoffmann was vying to become permanent dean, then-provost Dr. Michael Fisher required her to sign a statement vowing to uphold Catholic values.
Fisher is also accused of telling Hoffmann, “You might not want to be so overt about being a witch if you want to move up.” The lawsuit additionally alleges Sister Margaret Carney, St. Bonaventure president emeritus who retired in 2016, told Hoffmann, “I took a big chance hiring you as a Wiccan.”
Hoffmann, after becoming permanent dean of the communication school, then applied to become university provost, but the job instead went to Dr. Joseph Zimmer in 2016.
Hoffmann alleges she later stepped down as dean in 2017 out of fear for her job. Zimmer had told Hoffmann the university’s Board of Trustees wanted him to “solve the Pauline problem,” according to the lawsuit, and Hoffmann alleges the “Pauline problem” has to do with the fact she is Wiccan.
Although Hoffmann did not provide the exact dates she was allegedly discriminated against, St. Bonaventure’s attorneys argue all of the major events of her case took place more than 300 days before she filed her EEOC complaint Feb. 19.
The provost position was filled by Zimmer on Jan. 28, 2016; Hoffmann submitted her resignation letter as dean June 1, 2017; and her resignation went into effect Jan. 12, 2018.
The EEOC dismissed Hoffmann’s complaint because she did not meet the 300-day deadline — university attorneys provided documentation of this Friday — but the EEOC still gave Hoffmann her “right to sue letter,” meaning the EEOC has closed its investigation and she can file a lawsuit, as is customary.
However, St. Bonaventure’s attorneys argue, “It is well-settled that a litigant’s failure to file an EEOC charge within the required 300 day period operates as a bar to his or her maintenance of a Title VII claim in federal court.”
The EEOC website does mention one exception to the 300-day deadline: Equal Pay Act lawsuits.
Plaintiffs do not need to file an EEOC complaint at all if filing a lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act, which abolishes wage discrimination based on sex. A plaintiff filing under the Equal Pay Act just needs to file the lawsuit within two years of the alleged pay discrimination; three years if the discrimination was willful.
Hoffmann’s original complaint is filed as a Title VII lawsuit — which deals with sex and religion — and not an Equal Pay Act lawsuit, but it does say Hoffmann lost wages due to being passed over as provost and resigning as dean. Plus, the EEOC websites notes Title VII and Equal Pay Act claims raise some of the same issues.
However, the EEOC also notes that “since many EPA claims also raise Title VII sex discrimination issues, it may be advisable to file charges under both laws within the (300-day) time limits.”
Hoffmann’s lawsuit says the university caused her fear, embarrassment, loss of income, as well as a loss of enjoyment of life. It asks the university to reinstate her to the payroll in her former title and workload, but Hoffmann’s own attorneys have said courts generally prefer to just award damages.
Hoffmann is a 1991 graduate of St. Bonaventure and joined the university faculty in 2006. She told the Times Herald last month she began researching Wicca as a St. Bonaventure student and gravitated toward it because it’s “very natured-based.”
She said there are many misconceptions about Wicca, a decentralized religion part of contemporary paganism, like the false assumption Wiccans worship Satan.
Hoffmann, who lives in Franklinville, is currently teaching online classes for St. Bonaventure. She has said she doesn’t plan to return to campus until she has to when the fall semester starts in August.