A federal lawsuit resulting from the soured affair of an Arizona State University professor and one of his former students is not time-barred and may continue, a judge has ruled.
Tasha Kunzi, a former graduate student at ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, alleges that Professor Travis Pratt harassed her after she broke off their love affair and that she was forced to quit her doctoral program in July 2010 when Pratt and Scott Decker, the school's director, retaliated against her.
In court paperwork filed over the past year, Pratt and ASU didn't deny the allegations. Instead, they focused on getting the case tossed on technicalities -- but that didn't work.
The federal case has moved slowly since we broke this story last year, with ASU and the Board of Regents, represented by Rebecca Herbst, state assistant attorney general, arguing with Kunzi over whether she'd filed her claim in time.
Kunzi's lawsuit states that she began her affair with Pratt in July 2009 after she was accepted into the school's doctoral program. She broke off the relationship in February 2010 after Pratt's wife found out about it.
Kunzi claims he was "upset" and began harassing her with unwanted phone calls and texts. He'd occasionally drunk-dial her to disparage her new boyfriend and would drive by her house on his motorcycle. Pratt's wife began work at the school, where Kunzi continued to work as a research assistant, and also would harass her. Meanwhile, her suit claims, Director Decker failed to respond to her complaints. She withdrew from the doctoral program that July.
The state's statute of limitations for personal injury claims is two years. Claims regarding alleged civil-rights violations must be made to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 300 days of the alleged violation. Herbst, the state's attorney, argued that since the harassment and retaliation occurred before Kunzi resigned from the program and failed to meet the filing deadlines after that point, she was barred from bringing her case to court.
U.S. District Judge James Teilborg ruled on November 25 that Kunzi may have been subject to "continuing violation" under the law due to her claims that some harassment by Pratt continued well into 2011. Pratt allegedly told her in December 2010 that if he took her back, the harassment would stop, records state. After she left her job as a faculty associate in May 2011, he reportedly called her new employer "to reveal the details of her Kunzi's departure from ASU."
One other factor Judge Teilborg weighed in determining that a "systemic violation" may be occurring: Kunzi's allegation that Pratt is "presently involved in another intimate relationship with one of his female graduate students and is continuing to harass his other female students."
"These allegations sufficiently plead facts that qualify as a hostile work environment where at least one discriminatory act occurred after the critical dates..." Teilborg wrote in his order allowing the lawsuit to proceed.
New hearings in the case are now set for well into 2014, making it clear the case will go on for some time unless a settlement occurs.
In a report to the court filed on November 8 by both parties, ASU strikes a somewhat indignant tone, portraying Kunzi as a bad student who isn't grateful for what the school has done for her.
Pratt and his wife met with Decker, the criminology school's director, right after she discovered the affair, the report states. Decker soon met with with Kunzi in his office, where he informed her she had the right to file a grievance. She was taking one course from Pratt at the time, and Decker told her that Pratt had chosen to teach the remainder of the course online so he wouldn't have contact with her or any other student in the course. Decker also told Kunzi that he'd take over for Pratt in helping her with her research assistant job. She didn't say a word about harassment, Decker alleges.
Then, in May 2010, another instructor discovered that Kunzi had plagiarized part of her final paper in a "Topic in Quantitative Methods" class. He gave her an "XE" for the semester, representing "failure for academic dishonesty." The instructor didn't know about her affair with Pratt at the time, according to ASU.
ASU didn't drop Kunzi from its doctorate program -- and even accepted Kunzi's application to continue as research assistant and teach two courses scheduled for the spring of 2011. Decker gave Kunzi a "glowing recommendation" after she applied with the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections as a research analyst. Kunzi asked Pratt if she could list him as a reference for the job -- for which she was later hired -- and he agreed.
Kunzi could not be reached for this article, and neither Pratt nor Decker returned phone messages.
Pratt's still employed by ASU, but his ASU bio shows that he hasn't taught classes since this past spring. Family court records indicate he and his wife, who have one child, were divorced this year.
Kunzi married her boyfriend, who she claims also was harassed by Pratt and Decker while he was a fellow doctoral student at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. They now have two kids, says Kunzi's lawyer, Stephen Montoya.
Kunzi is seeking a monetary award in the case, Montoya says. But she and Montoya want to highlight the underlying problem -- how ASU deals with the issue of professors dating their own students.
The power imbalance in such a relationship inevitably causes problems, Montoya says. Students who want to do well in a class may find it difficult to rebuff a professor's advances. Once a relationship begins, ending it could be problematic depending on the timing of an important final or dissertation, he points out. ASU should have some sort of policy that discourages student-teacher affairs, he says.
"It's not a punitive regime we're advocating," Montoya says. "If you feel passionately for your student, then your student can drop the class."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.