Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Former William & Mary professor files discrimination lawsuit against college

David Dessler, 62, a former tenured government professor at William & Mary, has filed a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer. (Ian Brickey/WYDaily)

A former William & Mary professor who was charged with several counts of harassment by computer has filed a lawsuit alleging the college “silenced” him when he attempted to speak out about student mental health.

David Dessler, 62, a former tenured government professor at William & Mary, alleges the college silenced him from discussing student mental health issues starting in fall 2015, after a string of four student suicides during the previous school year, according to court documents.

Dessler filed the lawsuit against the college and Williamsburg-James City County Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan Green Dec. 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, according to online records.

A complaint filed in open court states William & Mary used its campus police department to control Dessler’s communication and movement, arresting the 32-year faculty member five times over a year-long period.

Dessler was arrested on four charges of harassment by computer and one failure to appear between February 2016 and January 2017, according to court records. The arrests occurred while Dessler was on medical leave from the college and barred from contacting college officials.

“The [Commonwealth’s Attorneys Office], working in concert with the College’s forceful, unilateral actions through its police force to ban Dr. Dessler from campus, effectively silenced him on the issue of mental health and quarantined him from campus as though he were a violent criminal,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit also alleges four other constitutional and civil violations, saying the college:

  • Failed to provide “reasonable accommodation” for Dessler’s disability (a “long-standing” diagnosis of depression) under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Took “adverse employment actions” against Dessler because of his disability
  • Did not hold a due process hearing – a right all tenured professors have – before terminating Dessler’s employment
  • Violated Dessler’s first amendment rights by banning him from campus and preventing him from speaking with faculty and students.

William & Mary spokeswoman Suzanne Seurattan released a statement from the college Tuesday afternoon.

“We have not had a chance to thoroughly review the complaint, so at this point, we cannot comment to its substance,” Seurattan said. “However, earlier this year Professor Dessler filed a similar complaint with the [Equal Opportunity Employment Commission]. They found no evidence of discrimination or retaliation on the part of the university. We expect the same outcome from this proceeding.”

She continued: “As we have stated in the past, this matter is a complex one involving both legal and personnel issues. The underlying mental health condition involved has been detailed and documented on several occasions in court. We are confident the university has acted appropriately and compassionately.”

David Dessler. (Courtesy Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail)

Green was not available for comment before publication time Tuesday afternoon.

Criminal charges

Spread over five separate arrests between February, Dessler spent 77 days in jail, the complaint states.

William & Mary Police said Dessler sent emails using “vulgar and obscene language” to government department chair John McGlennon, university counsel Deborah Love and other college officials.

The arrest warrants are dated Feb. 26, 2016, March 18, 2016, and Jan. 12-13, 2017.

All charges have been dropped except one computer harassment charge, which a judge deferred the disposition of until May 2019.

The complaint states Dessler revolted against the college’s “efforts to silence him” by sending the emails to college officials.

As part of his bond terms under the deferred disposition from the computer harassment case, Dessler is still not permitted to be on William & Mary property.

Wrongful termination

While college officials have said Dessler was not terminated from his employment – he remained a tenured professor at William & Mary, but his status was listed as “inactive” – the complaint states Dessler was effectively fired.

Dessler’s pay, insurance benefits and college email access ended within two weeks of Aug. 9, 2016, after Dessler was listed as “inactive,” the complaint states.

On. Sept. 9, 2016, three former colleagues and emeritus faculty members sent a letter to the provost and Faculty Assembly arguing Dessler was terminated without due process, according to the complaint.

David Dessler, 62, poses for a photo at a James City County restaurant on Dec. 5, 2017. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)
David Dessler, 62, poses for a photo at a James City County restaurant on Dec. 5, 2017. (Sarah Fearing/WYDaily)

Because Dessler still had tenure, college officials stated he had not been terminated from his position.

In June, the complaint states Dessler resigned “under duress,” feeling his only option was to “resign whatever remaining employment rights the College continued to insist he possessed”

In 2012, the Princeton Review and RateMyProfessors.com rated Dessler one of the top 300 professors in the country. According to his biography on the college’s website, Dessler worked at William & Mary since 1984.

According to the complaint, Dessler had disclosed to the college that he was diagnosed with depression, and did not receive accommodation for it.

“W&M took adverse employment actions against Dr. Dessler because of his disability, treating him like a criminal and eventually terminating him,” the complaint reads.

“Plaintiff has suffered, and will continue to suffer, a loss of wages and salary, physical, mental, and psychological damages in the form of extreme and enduring worry, suffering, pain, humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, and emotion distress,” the complaint reads.

Dessler declined to comment on the pending litigation Tuesday. Dessler’s attorney, Shannon Beebe, also declined to comment.

The complaint demands a jury trial and “compensatory damages to be determined at trial.”

The college and Green have not yet filed an official response to the allegations in court.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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