Former USC student files lawsuit against university for allegedly mishandling rape case

The lawsuit claims USC discriminated against the student and predetermined the outcome of her Title IX investigation in favor of the alleged perpetrator.

A former USC student filed a lawsuit on Oct. 16 against USC accusing the university of mishandling her rape investigation conducted by the Title IX Office. The investigation occurred during her third year at the Gould School of Law and concluded in favor of the alleged rapist.

Alex Zalkin of Zalkin Law Firm, the firm representing the former student Courtney Whittier, told Annenberg Media in an interview that the lawsuit claims USC violated Title IX and discriminated against Whittier before and after her alleged assault.

“Courtney’s alleging that USC discriminated against her in the way that it both responded to sexual misconduct on campus generally prior to her assault, as well as the way that it responded to her assault in particular,” Zalkin said.

Whittier maintains in the lawsuit that USC’s former Title IX investigator, Gretchen Dahlinger Means, acted in favor of the alleged perpetrator, telling the accused’s lawyer, Mark Hathaway of Hathaway Parker, that USC would "resolve the investigation in favor of the plaintiff “'over [her] dead body.'” The lawsuit also claims that Means allowed Hathaway to view all the evidence submitted by Whittier prior to submitting his client’s evidence, violating USC’s own policies.

Hathaway did not respond to Annenberg Media’s request for comment in time for publication.

Zalkin told Annenberg Media the firm hopes to hold the university accountable for failing to follow its own guidelines designed to prevent assaults like the one alleged by Whittier from happening.

“[USC] failed to enact effective policies that could have prevented Courtney’s assault from happening to begin with, and also in the way that it failed to respond to Courtney’s assault in a manner that was effective and reasonable,” Zalkin said. Zalkin added that USC’s “discrimination” against Whittier prevented her from having her alleged assault handled in a sufficient manner, undermining Title IX’s intended purpose.

“[USC] literally, intentionally predetermined the outcome of her complaint before the investigation was even done,” Zalkin claimed in the interview with Annenberg Media. “And that’s a clear violation of Title IX. It’s clearly discrimination against Courtney.”

The university said in a statement to Annenberg Media that it “will review the lawsuit in detail.” USC did not provide any further comment for this article.

According to the lawsuit, Means made Whittier wait 24 hours before deciding to go forward with a formal investigation. After the 24 hours, Whittier could not get in touch with Means and had to go through the dean of Gould School of Law to get in contact with Means and begin the investigation, the lawsuit states.

Annenberg Media reached out to Whittier, but did not receive a response prior to publication.

Whittier’s lawsuit is not the first filed against USC that accuses Means and the university of mishandling campus investigations.

According to a KCET article, an anonymous attorney hired to investigate USC’s Title IX Office filed a lawsuit on July 8 alleging USC discarded evidence in cases against university employees and used “shadow files” to retaliate against professors who spoke out against USC officials, among other accusations of misconduct.

In the same lawsuit, Means is accused of “retaliating against the attorney for reporting that [Means'] own husband, John Gaspari, was convicted of misusing graphic photographs involving another woman, costing [the attorney] his job as executive director of the USC Center for Work and Family Life,” according to KCET.

The university replaced Means as USC’s Title IX Coordinator and executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity in June, months after Gaspari also lost his job at USC’s President’s Campus Culture Commission.

In 2018, the Daily Trojan reported a California judge ordered USC to pay $111,965 in legal fees to a student accused of misconduct. The judge concluded that Means favored the plaintiff, tainting the investigation of the allegations against the student, who was expelled due to the allegations of sexual assault.

“The court found USC’s Title IX coordinator Gretchen Means to be biased against Doe and in favor of Roe, the accuser, thereby deeming her role as an adviser to the student equity review panel “'improper,'” according to the Daily Trojan article.

A USC spokesperson told the Daily Trojan at the time, “The judge’s finding was based on the specifics of this particular investigation and it is being re-done in accordance with the judge’s order. No broader issues were identified. USC’s policies are administered in fairness to all parties with decisions based on the evidence.”

USC also reached a $215 million settlement in 2018 with the victims of former university gynecologist, George Tyndall, after they filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that Tyndall subjected them to various forms of sexual harassment and assault, according to reporting from Annenberg Media.

Ariela Gross, professor at Gould School of Law and chair of Concerned Faculty of USC, reportedly called Means' handling of Tyndall’s 2016 case an “administrative failure” in a town hall where Means and other USC administrators discussed the 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct, according to a 2019 Daily Trojan article.

The Daily Trojan reported that Vice President of Student Affairs Winston Crisp responded to Gross, “We have to … see this as a problem whose dimensions span the entire University. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Annenberg Media was unsuccessful in its attempts to contact Means.

“It’s almost just like double psychological trauma,” said Zalkin about Whittier’s experience with the Title IX Office. “Once for the assault and then once for the betrayal that she feels as a result of institutional response.”