Lawsuit criticizes university’s handling of alleged domestic abuse

Andrew Kuo/Senior Staff

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A lawsuit filed May 16 against the UC Board of Regents and a UC Berkeley housing employee found fault with the university’s response to alleged reports of domestic abuse on university premises.

The lawsuit was filed by the parents of 22-year-old UC Berkeley alumna Milanca Lopez and her 6-year-old son Xavier Chavez, who both died as a result of a car accident on May 18, 2012, in which Lopez’s boyfriend, Jose Lumbreras, was the driver. At the time, Lopez was a resident of the University Village in Albany, a 58-acre property owned and managed by UC Berkeley. The lawsuit, which also named Lumbreras as a defendant, includes allegations of negligence, negligent supervision and premises liability.

According to the lawsuit, the accident occurred after several alleged instances of violence reported to a UC Berkeley employee, including domestic violence in Lopez’s home in University Village and verbal abuse of Lopez in front of other UC Berkeley students.

The lawsuit alleges that Lopez informed University Village family housing coordinator Cephas John of the domestic violence incidents in her home via phone and email 11 days before her death, but John failed to report them.

“Generically speaking, there are no specific UC policies, or laws for that matter, governing what employees must do if they hear about allegations of unlawful behavior,” said UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

Mogulof also noted the importance of the desires and instructions of the complainant, saying that “if a complainant asks that any information reported be kept confidential, that request must be honored.”

According to Mogulof, UC Berkeley is still in the process of examining the lawsuit. The university will be taking outside legal representation, as in all cases of personal injury litigation. UC spokesperson Steve Montiel declined to comment on the case.

“If there is a crime, then there is an obligation to report it,” Mogulof said. “We all accept shared responsibilities as citizens at the very least.”

Lumbreras’ attorney, Paul Wolf, denies the lawsuit’s portrait of his client as an abuser.

“(Lumbreras) absolutely denies that he abused Milanca or Xavier in any way,” Wolf said. “It is tragic, and it is false.”

In 2007, the University of California received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women, which was cited in the lawsuit. The grant provided training for UC police officers and student conduct staff to respond more effectively to violence, including domestic abuse.

Joel Siegal, an attorney of Lopez’s parents who co-authored the lawsuit, said the litigation against John and the university can be categorized as one that defends women’s rights. The lawsuit cites Title IX in claiming the university’s responsibility for the alleged incidents of domestic abuse.

“This (lawsuit) is about having a campus free of harassment,” Siegal said. “This is about feminism, and this is about women being safe on campus.”

The lawsuit also finds fault with the university for not overseeing Lumbreras’ behavior as a UC employee himself, alleging that Lumbreras “had power, authority, and influence over undergraduate students both during classroom settings and during extracurricular student organization meetings.”

According to a teaching guide for graduate student instructors, personal relationships between graduate student instructors and their students are forbidden by UC Berkeley policy. However, at the time of reporting, it remained unverified whether Lopez was ever a student of Lumbreras. It was confirmed that Lumbreras was a graduate student.

Contact Chris Yoder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @christiancyoder.