Penn State

Federal court upholds decision against former Penn State grad student

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a gender discrimination and hostile educational environment lawsuit brought by a former Penn State doctoral student.

The Third U.S. Court of Appeals on Wednesday affirmed the decision by U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III in the suit brought in 2010 by Yan Yan over her termination two years earlier from the doctoral program in the intercollege graduate program in cell and developmental biology.

She had sued the university; Zhi-Chun Lai, who chaired the program; and another student, Li-Lun Ho.

Yan was a teaching assistant and conducted research in Lai’s laboratory.

While working with Ho on Jan. 26, 2008, Yan broke two fingers on her right hand while attempting to move by herself a large carbon dioxide cylinder.

A month later she filed a report with Penn State police, claiming that threatening and intimidating behavior in the lab was a factor in her injuries.

That May 1, Yan failed the required comprehensive exam; lost an appeal; and subsequently appealed to the dean of the graduate school, blaming her injury, precipitous exam date and Ho’s alleged harassment for her failure.

Yan was terminated from the program when she failed to appear to retake the exam that August.

In her suit, Yan claimed that the rescheduled exam date was a “sham,” Penn State did not offer her reasonable accommodation to retake it, and she was a victim of Ho’s harassment and discrimination.

Jones granted a defense summary judgment motion after Yan returned to China and did not seek a further extension of the one already granted.

Yan sought reconsideration of Jones’ order, which was denied.

The circuit court, in denying her appeal, ruled there was no evidence to support her hostile educational environment claim or that the university retaliated for her complaining of gender discrimination.

The opinion also states that Jones properly concluded Yan failed to demonstrate that Lai treated her differently than other similarly situated students.