Sexual assault survivors file lawsuit against UC regents, UC Berkeley

Alvin Wu/Senior Staff

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Update 6/30/2015: The name of a convicted assailant has been redacted from the attached lawsuit at the request of one of the plaintiffs. 

EMERYVILLE — Three women who were sexually assaulted while students at UC Berkeley filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that the campus perpetrated gender-based discrimination and fraudulently represented its safety.

The lawsuit, filed against the UC Board of Regents and UC Berkeley in Alameda County Superior Court, also alleges that the University of California violated Title IX sexual assault and harassment requirements and failed to educate the plaintiffs and other students on how to prevent sexual assault or abuse. The lawsuit seeks damages for psychological and emotional distress, physical injury and effects on coursework and grades.

The Zalkin Law Firm, specializing in sexual abuse crimes, will be representing plaintiffs Sofie Karasek, 22; Aryle Butler, 21; and Nicoletta Commins, 23. Karasek, Butler and Commins held a press conference Monday, along with their lawyers, to announce the lawsuit.

A Title IX investigation into the campus is underway, and two Clery Act complaints were filed against the campus in 2013 and 2014, which are still under investigation, according to Alex Zalkin, who is representing the plaintiffs.

At the conference, Commins alleged that she had received no education on sexual violence while at UC Berkeley and was not informed of the progression of the investigation of her assailant, who was convicted of assault in criminal court.

“I was completely in the dark about the status of my case,” said Commins, who will still be on campus as a graduate student when her assailant returns to UC Berkeley in August after his suspension ends, according to the lawsuit.

Commins said that university and campus efforts to change the way that sexual assault is handled have been “hollow” and that her experiences with a “lengthy, demeaning and inept process” are being repeated with the sexual assault survivors with whom she and the other plaintiffs currently work.

Last year, the California state auditor released a report on UC Berkeley’s handling of sexual assault and harassment cases.

“The auditor’s report, which included a review of confidential case records, found that case outcomes were reasonable and that sanctions were appropriate given the severity of the incidents,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email.

The plaintiffs plan to make policy change suggestions during the lawsuit and will ask for a more neutral adjudication process that would include people unaffiliated with the university in order to offset what they say is a conflict of interest “inherent in the university policing itself.”

Karasek said the process is often biased in favor of the alleged assailants.

Karasek also asked for consent education at UC Berkeley orientations and for more appropriate disciplinary measures for perpetrators.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris and UC President Janet Napolitano announced in May a new program to address sexual assault on California college campuses, which recommended clarifying the responsibilities of campus authorities and law enforcement agencies after an assault and ensuring that both agencies connect victims to services, such as rape kits.

The campus also launched Bear Pact, an orientation workshop for new students that includes education on sexual violence and harassment.

Irwin Zalkin, also representing the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit will be particularly effective at bringing public attention to how the campus handles sexual assault because of the transparency of litigation and its ability to produce evidence and access to information.

“The story will be told in a different, public way,” he said. “We can challenge the public relations efforts of the university.”

Gilmore said the campus would reserve specific comment until it has reviewed the lawsuit, which it had not received as of Monday afternoon.

Contact Madeleine Pauker at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @madeleinepauker.