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Federal judge dismisses sexual harassment lawsuit filed against UA by RichRod's former office assistant
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Federal judge dismisses sexual harassment lawsuit filed against UA by RichRod's former office assistant

Rich Rodriguez’s former office assistant Melissa Melendez filed a federal lawsuit against the former UA coach and the university in 2019. Rodriguez was removed from the suit four months later; earlier this month, a federal judge agreed to dismiss the case.

A federal judge has dismissed a 2019 lawsuit filed against the University of Arizona by ex-football coach Rich Rodriguez's former office assistant, with both parties paying their own costs and attorneys' fees.

Melissa Melendez sued Rodriguez and the UA in federal court in July 2019, alleging violation of due process, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress, after her previous state-level claims against the UA and Rodriguez and went unanswered. Rodriguez was removed from the federal suit four months after her filing.

The case was active until Sept. 21, when lawyers for the University of Arizona filed a motion for summary judgement, asking U.S. District Judge Scott Rash to to make a ruling in the UA's favor without taking the case to trial. On Oct. 4, Melendez's lawyer, Stephanie Leach, filed a document saying Melendez and the UA agreed that the suit should be dismissed without the option to refile. Rash signed off on the dismissal the next day.

The pair of motions ends nearly four years of legal grappling involving Melendez, Rodriguez — who was fired in January 2018 — and the UA.

On December 28, 2017, Melendez filed a notice of claim — advance notice of intent to sue a public body — with the Arizona Attorney General's Office, asking for $7.5 million in damages.

On January 18, 2018, Melendez filed an additional $8.5 million notice of claim against the UA, saying the school was liable for his conduct.

Melendez filed both claims under her married name, Wilhelmsen, but has since divorced, Pima County Superior Court records show.

The federal lawsuit, filed July 24, 2019, sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, back and front pay, attorney's fees and interest at the maximum rate allowed, according to court documents. Melendez then removed Rodriguez from the suit, directing her claims solely at the UA and its governing body, the Arizona Board of Regents, court records show. The new lawsuit accused the UA of violating Melendez's due process, sexual harassment and retaliation.

The lawsuit said that Melendez was forced to hide Rodriguez's longtime relationship with a mistress, and that he eventually began sexually harassing Melendez. Melendez said she told one other football department employee about the behavior and requested a transfer to another department, but left for a job with a local insurance agency in August 2017. 

Rodriguez admitted to the affair but denied the other allegations.

In their summary judgment filing, UA's lawyers said Melendez's case against the UA should be dismissed for the following reasons:

  • Melendez did not file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission until after the deadline to file had passed. Discrimination charges must be filed within 300 calendar days from the date the alleged discrimination takes place if the person works for a state or local agency that prohibits discrimination. Melendez didn't file her EEOC charge until more than 343 days after the events in her lawsuit occurred.
  • The UA had an anti-harassment policy in place, but Melendez failed to take advantage of corrective opportunities. Melendez testified that she took an online anti-harassment quiz every year and knew how to contact both human resources and the Office of Institutional Equity, but never made a complaint against Rodriguez.
  • Melendez failed to cooperate with the UA's effort to investigate her allegations after she left her job. In October 2017, a staffer informed the Office of Institutional Equity that a donor had reported a conversation with Melendez in which she said Rodriguez "engaged in inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature towards her." This was the first time the UA was made aware that Melendez had any concerns. The department's deputy director met with Melendez the same day she received the information, and despite Melendez's assurances that she'd provide additional documents supporting her claims against Rodriguez, she failed to respond to requests for the information. The UA hired a team of outside investigators to investigate the claims, but Melendez failed to cooperate or participate in the investigation, which ultimately cleared Rodriguez of any wrongdoing.
  • Melendez ended up making more money at her next job than she did while working for the UA, but was fired from her new job after failing to pass her insurance license test three times.

Lawyers for the UA also said Melendez's claim "fails as a matter of law," among other reasons, in their request for summary judgment.

Rodriguez, 58, took the 2018 football season off before spending 2019 as Ole Miss' offensive coordinator. He returned to the sidelines this fall, where he is the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Monroe. His son Rhett, a former Catalina Foothills High School star who played at the UA, is a quarterback on Monroe's roster.

Contact Star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or cschmidt@tucson.com. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt


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