Groping in the Dark

Mota (flanked by attorneys Ahmad, left, and Zavitsanos) won a $450,000 verdict.
Houston Press

Luis Mota was 15 years old when he first met Raul Caffesse, a friend of his parents'. He would become Mota's own companion and mentor in his rise up the periodontal research ranks.

Both Mota's parents are periodontists; his father was dean of the periodontal school at Central University Venezuela in Caracas. Caffesse befriended them at a conference and through the years had dinner and drinks at their home.

When Mota finished his graduate studies in 1993, Caffesse helped him land an assistant professor position at the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center, where Caffesse was acting dean. Mota did the same research as Caffesse and remembers his boss telling him that he had the potential to chair a department. Mota and his brother took Caffesse's daughters to the Phil Collins concert, went to their pool parties and had Thanksgiving dinner at their home.

Mota felt like Caffesse was family -- another father, since his own was far away.

So Mota, sitcom-star attractive with dark chocolate eyes and a broad smile, thought nothing of them sharing a hotel room for a 1996 research conference in Monterrey, Mexico. He trusted his senior colleague, until he awoke during that trip feeling breath on his neck and unfamiliar arms reaching around him.

Caffesse wrapped Mota in a bear hug, his hands stroking Mota's chest, moving lower, pulling down Mota's blue sweatpants, Mota remembers.

Shocked, Mota tried to shove him away. Caffesse told him to relax.

"I just want to get to know you better," Mota remembers him saying. "Do you like to suck?"

That moment in the dark did more than kill Mota's feelings of trust, respect and friendship -- the resulting recriminations, alleged retaliation and ruined career track evolved into the first same-sex harassment trial in Texas.

"It's kinda like an odd twist to the movie The Graduate, instead this time it's Mr. Robinson," says one of Mota's attorneys, John Zavitsanos.

Mota says Caffesse made his initial overtures the night they arrived in Monterrey. Caffesse sat next to Mota on his bed as he looked through his slides for a presentation he was giving in the morning, Mota says. Caffesse touched his arm and his leg, Mota recalls.

You and I are very alike, Mota remembers Caffesse saying.

Mota is gay.

When Caffesse's hand crept up Mota's thigh, Mota jumped up and ran to the foot of the bed and said he wasn't interested.

The second night in the hotel room Caffesse wanted to sit on his bed and talk. Mota said he was stressed and wanted to sleep. The third night Mota didn't want to go back to the room. He stayed out until 2 a.m. then paced the lobby, and then the hall. Then he woke up with Caffesse's breath on his back. Mota remembers saying no, leave me alone, until Caffesse went back to his own bed. Mota lay awake as Caffesse told him he should get married to a woman, like he had.

In the morning Caffesse burst in while Mota was taking a shower and tried to lather him up. He said he needed to take a shower too.

Caffesse warned Mota never to tell anyone what had happened. No one would believe Mota, he said. Caffesse was a prestigious professor who was married with children, Mota was single and gay -- others would say he wanted it and started it. Caffesse told Mota that his parents would be very upset with him if they found out, and if they found out he was gay. Not wanting to lose his job and believing Caffesse when he said it wouldn't happen again, Mota kept quiet.

On their next academic trip together, Mota made sure to lock the bathroom door. On another trip, Caffesse asked him to cuddle. Mota came home a day early.

For their next conference, Mota made plans to room with another colleague at another hotel. He says Caffesse threatened him. He says Caffesse called him and called him, and when he wouldn't talk he came to his house and said that if his daughter wanted to marry Mota, he'd be honored. And that way he and Mota could travel together and no one would suspect anything.

Mota disconnected his phone to avoid Caffesse's calls. He avoided traveling with Caffesse until Caffesse promised that he would leave him alone and wouldn't touch him again. Mota tape-recorded that phone call.

At a conference in Orlando, Florida, Mota says, he woke up in the middle of the night to see Caffesse propped up on pillows, masturbating and moaning. Mota pulled the blankets up to his ears and prayed that he would stop. He woke up that morning with Caffesse standing over him, sticking his finger in his ear.  

He'd had more than he could take. Mota filed a sexual harassment charge with UT and a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

At the hearing convened by the university's sexual harassment board, Caffesse said it was Mota who got in bed with him and masturbated him. Caffesse said he never masturbated in front of Mota because he never masturbates at all.


The board reported in June 1997 that Mota and Caffesse both acknowledged they had at least one sexual encounter together off-campus, but the board said it was unable to determine whether or not it was consensual sex.

Even if it's consensual, it still violates the school's harassment policy, say Mota's lawyers, Zavitsanos and Joseph Ahmad.

University officials say they're wrong. "The policy doesn't forbid consensual relationships; they declare them unwise," says Frank Collura, chief legal officer for the UT Health Science Center.

A few days after the board reported its findings, Collura wrote Mota that "the board cannot protect you against further harassment or retaliation." The letter told Mota to report harassment to his supervisor -- that's Caffesse himself -- or the dean of the Dental Branch.

After the sexual harassment suit, Mota couldn't avoid Caffesse. Their schedule, created by Caffesse, called for them to work in the same lab at the same time and to teach the same hours.

Mota says the stress of Caffesse looking at his crotch in the lab and making sucking noises and leaving love notes caused Mota to develop a stomach ulcer and exacerbated his irritable bowel syndrome. He was depressed and sought psychiatric care. Denied medical or paid leave, Mota took a six-month unpaid leave.

But he wanted to continue his research and work with students. The dean, Dr. Ronald Johnson, wrote him in November 1997 that it was not "practical or possible" to keep his and Caffesse's paths from crossing, since Caffesse was head of the division.

Therefore it was in "everyone's best interest" for Mota to stay out of the division, to not go into his office and to not use his computer or research lab or secretary, Johnson wrote.

The school took Mota's name off the Dental Branch letterhead, took away his office nameplate, removed him from research projects, and removed him from teaching continuing-education courses and from being a graduate student thesis adviser. And kicked him off the mock board panel at the dental school.

Mota's attorney Zavitsanos sent a letter enclosing a note from Mota's internist asking for a six-week extension of his leave.

Four days later the response came in a letter from university President David Low and Johnson. The dean offered to reassign Mota to another section at the Dental Branch, where he'd be supervised by someone other than Caffesse. Other steps were proposed to limit any contact between him and Caffesse.

The dean also said he'd arrange it so Mota could continue in the same area of research he had worked in before, but if he did that he had to realize that if he wanted to work on projects that involved Caffesse, he would have to talk to Caffesse.

It all sounds fairly reasonable. But Mota said it's unacceptable.

Foreseeing this reaction, the letter continued: "Essentially, the University is at a loss as to what more it can do to achieve a work environment acceptable to you," it said. "As we are sure you can understand, we cannot punish Dr. Caffesse in light of the panel's finding that essentially concluded that your allegations were not believable." The letter said Mota obviously wanted Caffesse fired and to be put in his place on research projects, "which is not only unrealistic, but also unreasonable.

"Although the University consistently has strived to achieve a work environment acceptable to you, your cooperation has not been forthcoming."

In May 1998 university officials told Mota that his available leave was used up, and since he hadn't returned to work they were taking him off the payroll.

Mota took a $20,000 pay cut with a non-tenure-track visiting assistant professor position at the University of Pittsburgh. But at conferences no one would talk to him, Mota says. People believed the rumors that he and Caffesse had had an affair that Caffesse had ended.

Mota sued the university and Caffesse last year. Caffesse settled two months ago for $290,000; the case against the university went to trial.

The dental school's position was that Caffesse didn't violate the UT sexual harassment policy and that Mota's version of the relationship was neither "plausible nor believable." Officials insist they separated Caffesse and Mota immediately, that it was best for everyone that Mota be denied access to the university. The dental school officials said they are proud of Dr. Caffesse and do not intend to reprimand him.  

In short, they said that Mota suffered no damages and Caffesse did nothing wrong.

Federal court jurors disagreed.

Their verdict awarded Mota nearly $450,000 in damages and compensation. Coupled with attorneys' fees and interest, Mota's lawyers expect the final judgment to be in excess of $1 million.

"It's not a case about gay rights," Zavitsanos says. "They completely derailed this guy's career."

The university is considering an appeal of the verdict, says Cyndy Garza-Roberts, associate vice president of public affairs. The official statement says school authorities still "strongly feel" that the university followed proper grievance procedures and did not retaliate against Mota. UT Houston, it says, has a commitment against sex harassment. They don't feel they took Mota's career off any track at all.

"Contrary to popular representation, Dr. Mota was not fired, nor did the university retaliate," says chief legal officer Collura. "We're just sorry that the jury didn't agree with our position. We still maintain that our position was correct. Juries see things different ways."

Caffesse says he is "very disappointed" with the outcome of the trial and to direct any other questions to his personal lawyer at Baker & Botts. His attorney did not return calls for comment.

As for Mota, sitting in his lawyer's office in a gray suit, he doesn't like talking about this. He's a private person who doesn't tell many people that he's gay. Thanks to this, his parents now know. His mother cries. The 36-year-old always locks doors and changes clothes in private, and he doesn't trust people anymore, he says.

"I feel terrible," Mota says. "I hope that they change those policies at the university. The policies are beautifully written, but they don't apply them. They turn their eyes the other way."

E-mail Wendy Grossman at

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