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School of Dental Medicine Dean Mark Wolff speaks at a roundtable during climate week at Penn on Sept. 19, 2023.

Credit: Ethan Young

Penn's School of Dental Medicine and its dean are engaged in an ongoing legal battle with a former school administrator, who claims that he faced termination in retaliation for raising a sexual misconduct complaint.

Todd Singer — who served as the Dental School's assistant dean for intramural and extramural affairs from 2019-2021 — first filed a lawsuit against the Dental School and Dean Mark Wolff in December 2022. In the suit, Singer alleged that he was pressured to leave his job after he complained of “sexually explicit and harassing conduct” toward his assistant by the chair of the school's periodontics department. This conduct allegedly included nude images sent over a personal and Penn-affiliated email.

The department chair, professor Rodrigo Neiva, reports to Wolff and has been employed by Penn since 2019, though the central events of the complaint occurred throughout 2021. Proceedings in Singer's lawsuit continued throughout the fall 2023 semester, with the latest developments occurring as recently as January 2024.

Singer is suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — which prohibit retaliation against an individual for reporting employment discrimination and sexual harassment, respectively. The lawsuit alleges that Penn — with Wolff's assistance — acted to “conceal the conduct complained of by Dr. Singer in the hope that it would not be subject to reporting or punishment” under Title IX. 

In addition to serving as dean, Wolff currently chairs the University's task force on antisemitism, which was formed in November 2023. The task force has met consistently over the past few months to provide recommendations and policy solutions to combat antisemitism on campus.

Singer's original complaint, which was filed in the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania, also alleges a violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, both of which relate to employment discrimination. In the lawsuit, Singer asked the court to grant him relief, including the reinstatement of his employment and compensatory and punitive damages.

In a written statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, a University spokesperson said that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission — the state's civil rights enforcement agency — investigated Singer’s allegations and dismissed his complaint: "The Commission also found that Mr. Singer did not report sexual harassment, nor did any sexual harassment occur.” 

“We are disappointed that former Penn employee Mr. Singer has chosen to file this baseless lawsuit and we are confident that both Penn and Dean Wolff will be vindicated in this litigation,” the University spokesperson wrote.

In an answer to the complaint filed in February 2023, University attorneys denied that the Dental School and Wolff had engaged in unlawful retaliatory conduct under any federal, state, or local law. A subsequent defense filing in May 2023 said that Singer resigned from the Dental School after “repeatedly engaging in unprofessional and disrespectful conduct toward other employees.” 

“Plaintiff is trying to use his knowledge of information that is sexual in nature and potentially embarrassing for that reason to conjure up a lawsuit" despite this information not being related to Singer's own conduct, the University's attorneys wrote.

The Penn spokesperson's statement added that the Dental School did not terminate Singer’s employment and that Singer submitted his formal resignation via email.

Singer is represented by Console Mattiacci Law, an employment rights law firm that did not respond to a request for comment. Baker McKenzie, a law firm representing the University, also did not respond to a request for comment. 

Sexual misconduct allegations against a department chair

Singer was appointed assistant dean of the Dental School in May 2019 after serving as the president and chief clinical officer of a multi-specialty dental practice in New Jersey. 

In an announcement following Singer's appointment, Wolff called him an "extraordinary fit" for the Dental School, praising his "knowledge of multi-site, multidiscipline dental practices" that would allow the school to grow and see new accomplishments.

In January 2021, Neiva informed Singer that he had sent sexually explicit messages to Singer’s assistant and another Penn instructor, according to the plaintiff's complaint.

Although neither the assistant nor the instructor worked directly under Neiva, their positions were subordinate to Neiva’s within the Dental School — as admitted by the University in a February 2023 filing.

The plaintiff’s complaint alleges that Neiva’s conduct of sending nude and sexually explicit images to subordinates violated University policies. 

Penn’s sexual misconduct policy describes “sexual harassment” as any unwanted conduct based on an individual’s sex that “conditions an educational or employment benefit on participation in unwelcome sexual conduct … or a reasonable person would determine is so severe, pervasive, and/or objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to an educational or employment program or activity.” 

According to the complaint, Singer also reported Neiva’s conduct to Wolff, who “immediately … focused on any potential damage to the Dental School’s fundraising” and subsequently “emphasized that he did not want to have to replace Neiva.”

The University has denied these allegations. In its defense filing, Penn said that it “promptly organized” an independent investigation into Neiva’s communications with the two employees. 

Penn's Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity Programs conducted the investigation, which included interviews and document review provided by the three people involved — finding no violation of Penn’s sexual misconduct policy, according to the University's attorneys. 

The PHRC, whose investigations often involve fact-finding, interviews, and documentation review, concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to support Singer’s claim that he had reported Neiva’s misconduct to Wolff or experienced harassment from Wolff as a result. 

A PHRC spokesperson told the DP that the commission is not able to comment on alleged complaints and cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Alleged retaliatory conduct by Wolff

Following Singer’s complaint about Neiva’s behavior, the lawsuit alleges that Singer experienced retaliatory conduct from Wolff. These alleged acts include Singer being “dismissed” and “rebuffed” when he asked for updates on an investigation into Neiva’s conduct — as well as a removal without warning from presenting at a symposium.  

While the defendants acknowledged that Singer was removed from a panel, they attributed the decision to Singer’s communicated belief that the conference was a “waste of time.” 

The parties offered competing versions of how exactly Singer’s employment at Penn ended. According to Singer, Wolff threatened his job and ordered him to “take a few days off” on June 30, 2021. The following day, Wolff allegedly told Singer that he was “done effective immediately." 

In contrast, the defendants claimed that the meeting on June 30, 2021 focused on Singer's pattern of disrespectful treatment toward his colleagues. They described his management approach as “intimidation and bullying" — citing instances of him yelling and making colleagues feel uncomfortable.  

In a February 2023 filing, the University argued that Wolff advised Singer to consider taking time off and suggested reconciliation meetings with his colleagues. After Singer allegedly refused to change his management style, Wolff and Singer discussed Singer's resignation and the Dental School’s willingness to provide separation benefits, according to the defense. 

Despite the competing allegations, both the University and Singer have agreed that Singer sent Wolff an email of resignation from the Dental School on July 6, 2021. However, Singer alleged that his receipt of a severance agreement indicates that he resigned involuntarily, since such agreements are not offered to employees who resign voluntarily. In its defense filing, the University denied this claim regarding Penn’s severance agreement protocols, citing the "vague reference to unnamed 'employees who resign involuntarily."

The lawsuit is currently in the discovery phase, with expert discovery and depositions due by April 30 of this year. A final pretrial conference is scheduled to take place in October.