A former employee of St. Joseph’s Univesity who’s a lesbian has filed suit against the school, claiming “hateful” pressure from supervisors to stay in the closet ruined her career, caused her to attempt suicide and resulted in the dissolution of her marriage.
The 67-page lawsuit, filed Oct. 11, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro. A jury trial has been requested.
The school hired Noel Koenke in July 2010 as Coordinator for Liturgy and Music. She was promoted in May 2016 to the position of Assistant Director for Music and Worship, according to the lawsuit.
“[Koenke’s] performance evaluations reflected that her performance was commendable and exceeded expectations,” the lawsuit states. “[Koenke] was beloved by the students she served during her tenure. [Koenke] also completed a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Care from La Salle University while [she] was working for [the university].”
But throughout Koenke’s employment, various supervisors pressured her to stay in the closet, which Koenke claims is a form of sex discrimination, according to the lawsuit.
“Once having hired [Koenke], [the school] does not have free rein to continuously discriminate against, harass, and abuse [Koenke] based on her sexual orientation with impunity,” the lawsuit states. “Throughout [Koenke’s] employment, [she] was subjected to sexual harassment — hateful and harassing conduct that was based on sex, gender, and/or gender stereotyping. The harassment was severe and/or pervasive.”
On July 12, 2013, a male supervisor specifically asked Koenke to hide her sexual orientation, including making alterations to her Facebook page. On July 23, 2013, Koenke filed a formal complaint of discrimination with a university official, to no avail, according to the lawsuit.
The school’s “hateful and harassing conduct” toward Koenke caused her to attempt suicide on Aug. 11, 2013. She was hospitalized following the suicide attempt and received therapy to deal with work-related stress, according to the lawsuit.
“[Koenke] was seriously damaged by the harassment and abuse [she] experienced in being required to remain closeted or hide [her] upcoming marriage to a person of the same sex, for fear of the negative consequences or repercussions if [she] was suspected or found out,” the suit states. “[Koenke] did come out to a certain number of select co-employees with whom [she] worked closely — as it is difficult if not virtually impossible to remain closeted at all times and around every single person.”
Koenke eventually felt she had no other choice but to resign. “The difficulty in trying to maintain a secret double life by incessantly navigating who to tell and who not to tell, both inside and outside of work, took an immense psychological toll on [Koenke],” the suit states.
On Nov. 9, 2017, Koenke was offered a severance agreement of $17,800.00, if she would release the university from any legal claims. She rejected the offer, moved to Texas and no longer works in the field of education. Moreover, the work-related stress contributed to her divorce, according to the suit.
“[The university’s] conduct has destroyed [Koenke’s] career,” the suit states. Koenke is seeking damages in excess of $150,000 and a court order that the university initiates LGBT sensitivity training for its employees.
Neither side had a comment for this story.”The university has not been served with a complaint and, therefore, it would be premature to comment at this time,” said Gail Benner, a spokeswoman for the university, in an Oct. 14 email.