UC Berkeley employee sues UC Board of Regents in sexual harassment lawsuit

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Content warning: Sexual harassment

Campus employee Zulema Lara filed a lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents and fellow campus employee Nathaniel Knight on April 4 in the Alameda County Superior Court, claiming that the necessary actions to respond to alleged sexual harassment were not taken.

Lara and Knight are currently employees of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, or PEER, where Knight was a management-level employee at the time of the incident and is currently a development technician, while Lara is a “lower-level” employee. According to court documents, Lara received phone calls and 20 text messages from Knight that caused her to fear for her safety both in and out of work Oct. 17, 2017.

“I do not need anything more out of life except you,” Knight said in a text message to Lara. “Nothing will make me sleep except you and I just want to see you but I am swimming across too large of a sea for this to be my moment to do it perfect just once.”

After receiving the text messages, Lara filed a police report and complained about the text messages and phone calls to PEER administrators and human resources. Lara said she was hesitant to report Knight’s behavior and said she felt like she was going up against a “huge, huge institution.”

According to Lara, Knight took three months’ leave after the incident. Lara claims she did not know what actions were being taken to address the text messages and was shocked when Knight returned to work after his leave. She also claims that PEER administrators did not push for Knight’s resignation. Instead, she alleges that administrators tried to protect Knight.

“When he returned to work, it was a surprise,” Lara said. “I was pretty much blindsided. I feared for my safety, I feared for being at work.”

Once Knight returned to work, Lara had a face-to-face interaction with Knight. It was after that interaction that Lara complained via email to PEER officials, saying she would prefer not to see Knight again. Since Lara submitted the paperwork, she claims she has not been kept “in the loop” about what next steps were taken.

Lara’s main complaint is that the university’s response to her complaint was allegedly not taken seriously.

“The university had the responsibility to somehow, to make Zulema comfortable and not fearful about what was happening next,” said John Winer, Lara’s attorney. “(It) could’ve reassured her that they talked to Knight, explained some reason why he sent those texts. (It) should’ve told Zulema what steps to take if messages continued and should’ve offered counseling.”

Winer said this is the third lawsuit involving sexual harassment he has worked on against UC Berkeley.

Lara is suing for three different types of damages: wage losses, emotional damages and punitive damages.

“I think that sexual harassment remains to be a huge problem and that University of California. Berkeley needed to do more in response to a serious sexual harassment situation,” Winer said.

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore declined to comment on the case.

Contact Julie Madsen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.