USC doctoral social work student Karissa Fenwick sued the university on Tuesday, claiming it didn't take necessary action after she reported sexual harassment by associate professor Erick Guerrero, who denies the allegations. The lawsuit also names him as a defendant.
In the suit, Fenwick said Guerrero sexually harassed and assaulted her at a conference in January and then "tried to coerce her into not reporting his gross misconduct." The suit, filed in LA County Superior Court, alleges that the professor has a history of "sexually inappropriate behavior with female students."
"The allegations in the complaint are false and I have answered them in court this afternoon," Guerrero said in an email to Annenberg Media. "I have peace of mind that things will be cleared out after the facts are revealed."
Fenwick spoke at a press conference on Thursday, accompanied by her lawyer, John D. Winer, detailing her allegations about what occurred at the conference in New Orleans.
"He made verbal and physical advances, including that he always thought of me sexually, including convincing me to come to his hotel room, including sitting me on his bed and leaning over trying to kiss me, only stopping once I started yelling in protest and ran past him out of the room," Fenwick said of Guerrero.
She said that Guerrero, who was her dissertation adviser and primary mentor, then cornered her at the conference and threatened her by saying he would take down anyone she told and said the dean would be on his side.
"So at that point, I was terrified because he controlled not only my dissertation but my ability to graduate and my reputation in the field that I wanted to get a job in," Fenwick said.
Fenwick said she filed her report to the USC Office of Equity and Diversity seven days after the incident. Her lawyer, Winer, said the university did nothing to separate Fenwick from Guerrero.
"[The university] made findings in favor of Karissa, finding that Prof. Guerrero assaulted her in his hotel room and sexually harassed her in his hotel room, and found the next day, that he did indeed try to convince her not to come forward by threatening her," Winer said.
USC, he said, "administered extraordinarily light discipline to a professor who should have been fired."
A USC spokesperson said the school "thoroughly investigated the claims, and based on the findings it disciplined the faculty member involved." Guerrero received a "financial penalty," was prevented from holding leadership positions, and will not be able to teach classes or supervise students "for the current academic year and beyond." His office was also relocated "away from students."
Guerrero was also warned that "any recurrence or retaliation could lead to dismissal," the university said.
At the press conference, Fenwick said, "I'm hoping that by talking about what I've been through in the past nine months will help USC, as well as other institutions, to realize they need to do more to address sexual harassment in their communities."