Attorneys presented arguments in court Tuesday regarding a petition to dismiss UC Berkeley professor Blake Wentworth’s defamation lawsuit against two campus graduate students who alleged he sexually harassed them.
No motion was made on the petition, which challenged a lawsuit Wentworth filed against the two graduate students, Kathleen Gutierrez and Erin Bennett, alleging that the two intentionally made false statements and inflicted emotional distress. Wentworth filed the lawsuit against Gutierrez, Bennett and their attorney Michael Flynn on Sept. 22, 2016.
In the lawsuit, Wentworth alleged that Gutierrez, Bennett and Flynn made provably false statements to the media. The petition moves to dismiss Wentworth’s lawsuit on the grounds that the statements made by Gutierrez and Bennett constitute protected free speech.
Gutierrez and Bennett filed sexual harassment complaints against Wentworth with the UC Berkeley Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD, in March 2015. Six months later, OPHD determined that Wentworth had only violated UC sexual misconduct policy in Gutierrez’s case. Bennett’s case was dismissed after it was deemed “sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute sexual harassment,” according to a Department of Fair Employment and Housing complaint filed by Bennett.
The Sept. 22 lawsuit stated that Wentworth had a “cordial” and “friendly” relationship with Gutierrez and that she allegedly never told Wentworth she found his behavior inappropriate prior to filing a complaint with the campus Title IX office. The lawsuit further alleged that Gutierrez may have fabricated harassment allegations to excuse “bad judgments” she said she made in February and March 2015, including submitting assignments late.
While the campus Title IX office found Wentworth had violated UC sexual misconduct policy in Gutierrez’s case, the status of the disciplinary process surrounding the case is still pending.
Michael Hoffman, the lawyer representing Wentworth, said Flynn’s comments on a letter submitted to Janet Broughton, former vice provost for the faculty, allegedly “show the intent not only to defame (Wentworth), but wreck his career and go out and silence him in the process.”
Hoffman alleged that comments made by Flynn and his clients to the press were not, as claimed, about amending campus Title IX office procedures, but rather were statements made against Wentworth.
“This narrative that the defendants were just trying to fix these (Title IX) procedures — that is completely false,” Hoffman alleged.
Hoffman argued that Gutierrez is liable for Flynn’s comments, as Flynn is an agent of Gutierrez.
“(Hoffman is) claiming that everything (the graduate students) said he did is fabricated,” said James Wheaton, one of the attorneys who filed the petition to dismiss Wentworth’s lawsuit. “It’s not just the right to speak that he’s attacking, but also the right to petition your government for help.”
The petition and the lawsuit will be discussed again at the Alameda County Administration building April 11.