A former professor at Weber State University is suing the Ogden school for how it handled an allegation of sexual harassment from a student in his class.
Although pages of emails and other electronic messages were used as evidence in the case, Jason Fritzler, who taught microbiology before resigning last year, maintains he didn’t and couldn’t have sent the messages to the student, his attorney Brian Jackson told The Salt Lake Tribune this week.
Fritzler alleges the sexually charged messages were fabricated, and denies the female student’s assertion that they had sexual relations on several occasions.
In fact, the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Utah’s U.S. District Court, focuses on the university, its policy for investigating the accusation and its lack of “impartiality” throughout the process, Jackson said.
Weber State University officials, in a statement provided to The Tribune, denied any wrongdoing and said they intend to “vigorously defend the case in court.”
A case built on false evidence?
University officials, when asked about the allegations of fabricated evidence and whether they attempted to authenticate it, provided a short statement, saying they deny the allegations in the lawsuit. They directed further questions to the Attorney General’s Office.
The following information was taken from the lawsuit, unless otherwise noted.
The university began investigating Fritzler in January 2017 after it received a complaint from a student saying Fritzler had been sexually harassing her.
Fritzler first learned of the investigation Jan. 27, 2017, when he met with Barry Gomberg, executive director of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity for the university.
Gomberg went over some of the student’s accusations of sexual contact between the two, which Fritzler denied.
During the meeting, Fritzler began to make sense of a some recent oddities in his life and relayed them to Gomberg.
For instance, on Jan. 20, 2017, a person claiming to be one of Fritzler’s students messaged his wife (who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit) on Facebook, saying she and Fritzler were having an affair. The person later revealed he was the student’s husband.
Fritzler’s wife eventually spoke on the phone with the student, who asserted she could describe the inside of the Fritzlers’ home and a birthmark on his stomach as proof of the affair.
But the lawsuit says the student could describe only an area of the home that can be seen through the front window.
Fritzler drew a connection between that and unexplained tire tracks in their driveway and footprints leading to their back gate. Another time, he said, his dog urinated on their carpet.
“The dog never does this unless the dog is mad or scared at something,” according to the lawsuit, which adds that the Fritzlers “highly suspect that someone was unlawfully in their home.”
Gomberg reportedly ”demanded” Fritzler should go to police about the unusual activity at his home. When Fritzler spoke to police, they said there was nothing they could do because there was no longer any evidence. (The university later found Fritzler in violation of their anti-retaliation policy, even though Fritzler said Gomberg told him that going to police wouldn’t be considered retaliation.)
During the meeting, Frtizler also explained that the student saw his birthmark in class when he dried his hands on his shirt during an experiment.
Before he left Gomberg’s office, Fritzler learned a no-contact order had been entered between him and the student, who was continuing to take classes at the university, according to the lawsuit.
Later in the investigation, university officials released to Fritzler 137 pages of emails, and 90 pages of messages sent through an internal university system that Fritzler and the student purportedly exchanged.
Fritzler, who said his accounts could have been hacked, insisted he never saw any of the messages before the university provided them to him.
Jackson said many of the messages were sent late at night, when Fritzler was sleeping and the student was at work, or when Fritzler was in meetings or teaching classes. On Thanksgiving 2016, the messaging was “relentless,” Jackson said, even though Fritzler was reportedly with his wife and friends.
Toward the end of November 2016, the messages show Fritzler and the student would chat “every single day and almost every single hour.”
“This would infer that Professor Fritzler had his cellphone or computer on him nonstop and was messaging during meetings with faculty, during classes, meeting with students, preparing for classes, working with students, and spending time with his wife and friends,” according to the lawsuit.
Sometimes the messages would reference things that weren’t true, like Fritzler having another wife, or owning a veterinary clinic. Sometimes the student would respond to her own messages as if she were Fritzler, from her own email address, Jackson said. Despite that, the university assumed the messages were authentic.
The professor went through the messages — which were reproduced in text files — labeling what he was doing when they were sent, Jackson said.
The student also provided university investigators with dates and times of when she and Fritzler allegedly had sexual relations. All are times that Fritzler asserts he couldn’t have been with her.
On Dec. 5, he was at work and had meetings with students and colleagues before a final exam in one of his classes. On Dec. 12, he was with his wife. On Dec. 20, he was also with his wife, this time Christmas shopping. On Jan. 17, he was with his wife and her family at home.
Jackson alleges the university never looked into those discrepancies.
And although the university found that Fritzler’s computer had not been “physically” hacked, the university never looked into the possibility that his computer or accounts had been remotely hacked.
That’s puzzling, Jackson said, because after one meeting with Gomberg, Fritzler received a message from his own email address stating, “Heard it didn’t go well with Gomborg [sic], well it won’t get any better.”
Fritzler received similar messages from his own email at least two more times.
When asked why he believed the student would go to such lengths to implicate Fritzler, Jackson said he believes she wanted to skip a prerequisite class, organic chemistry, which she had failed multiple times, so she could graduate in microbiology.
Amid the investigation, university officials allowed the student to skip the prerequisite class. It is unclear if the student did graduate.
Problems with process
Despite the oddities surrounding the evidence, Jackson said the main concern of the lawsuit is how the university investigated the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges the university violated Fritzler’s constitutional right to due process, his right to respond to allegations brought against him and review evidence, his right to a hearing, his right to be tried before colleagues, his right to have the accuser present the case and be cross-examined, and his right to the presumption of innocence.
University Provost Madonne Miner, who is named in Fritzler’s lawsuit, issued a finding in June 2017 that Fritzler was in violation of the university’s consensual relations policy, rather than sexual harassment, according to the lawsuit.
Fritzler announced his resignation April 21 and left the university June 30.
According to Weber State officials, “[Fritzler] did not avail himself of the full internal review process to which all university faculty members are entitled before submitting his resignation. The university internal review procedures are continuing, and he is able to participate in that process.”
The lawsuit accuses Gomberg and the university of libel and slander for their purported role in telling Fritzler’s colleagues he was guilty of the allegations against him. Fritzler also alleges that Gomberg admitted writing the student’s harassment complaint, which Fritzler maintains contains “defamatory material.”
Fritzler is also suing in connection with a host of other issues, including disclosure of embarrassing private facts, breach of fiduciary duty, sexual harassment, wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Fritzler, who is now teaching at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas, and his wife, Camille Fritzler, are seeking more than $27 million in damages.