UC Berkeley professor Blake Wentworth sues UC amid sex harassment allegations

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09/29/16 Update: This article has been updated to reflect additional information from campus, Michael Flynn and Michael Hoffman. 

Campus professor Blake Wentworth sued the UC Board of Regents for discrimination and retaliation Wednesday after a slew of sexual harassment allegations against him came to light last spring.

Wentworth is also suing three women who have previously come forward with sexual harassment allegations against him for defamation, false light publicity and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Two campus graduate students — Kathleen Gutierrez and Erin Bennett — filed sexual harassment complaints with the campus Title IX office in March 2015 against Wentworth, a professor in the South and Southeast Asian studies, or SSEAS, department. The office found that Wentworth had violated UC sexual misconduct policy in only Gutierrez’s case.

In April, Gutierrez and Bennett filed a state complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or DFEH, alleging that the campus mishandled their respective sexual misconduct cases. Then, in May, campus alumna Nicole Hemenway filed lawsuits accusing Wentworth of sexual harassment and the campus of failing to provide a safe work environment.

“Once a professor is branded a ‘harasser’ in the media or popular opinion, he or she is unlikely to find work as a teacher again,” both lawsuits stated.

Wentworth filed a lawsuit against Hemenway on Sept. 20 and filed another lawsuit against Gutierrez, Bennett and their lawyer Michael Flynn, who also represents Hemenway, on Sept. 22.

In both the Sept. 22 lawsuit and the lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents, he alleged that Bennett lodged a complaint — of which he was notified in November 2014 — in an attempt to maintain her fellowship after she dropped her independent study class overseen by Wentworth.

“(Bennett) never advised him that their conversations or work interfered with her studies or made her uncomfortable,” the lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents alleged. “As her emails show, Bennett claimed to be ‘uncomfortable’ in an effort to save her funding and excuse her academic challenges.”

The then-SSEAS department chair, Jeffrey Hadler, referred Bennett’s complaint to the campus Title IX office in February 2015, two days after Wentworth — who has depression and bipolar disorder — was hospitalized for “a major psychological crisis,” according to the lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents. Wentworth alleged in the lawsuit that “Hadler quickly resurrected Bennett’s meritless assertions as a pretext to build a file on (Wentworth) and get rid of a disabled professor.”

According to the Sept. 22 lawsuit, Wentworth had a “cordial, friendly” relationship with Gutierrez and she allegedly never told Wentworth that she found his behavior inappropriate before filing her complaint with the campus Title IX office. The Sept. 22 lawsuit alleged that she may have fabricated the harassment allegations in an effort to excuse “bad judgments” she said she made in February and March 2015, such as turning in work late and becoming angry with others.

“Why would someone make complaints of sexual harassment and go through the whole ordeal … having to hire lawyers and deal with media — why would someone do all that just to distract from their grades?” Flynn said.

Additionally, the Sept. 20 lawsuit alleged that Hadler made “veiled remarks” to Wentworth that prompted him to ask Hemenway if his behavior made her uncomfortable. After which, Hemenway allegedly emailed Wentworth, telling him that she did not find his behavior inappropriate.

“A big part of why sexual assailants rarely face any kind of legal or disciplinary consequences is because people accuse the victim of lying,” the Sept. 20 lawsuit, which redacted many of Wentworth’s email responses, quoted Hemenway as allegedly saying in the email. “Which is why, in my eyes, anyone who lies about sexual assault is actively moving us backwards in that struggle.”

Wentworth is currently on paid leave, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, as his case has yet to be resolved. In March, SSEAS faculty released a letter condemning the campus’s slowness in investigating the allegations of sexual misconduct against Wentworth.

The disciplinary consequences of the campus investigation would allow for “the full range of sanctions,” including dismissal, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof previously said in April.

Wentworth alleged in the Wednesday lawsuit that the Title IX office conducted a “hunt for ‘unprofessional conduct.’ ” According to the lawsuit, the campus Title IX office characterized his conversations about Burning Man and drug use in the context of lectures on utopianism as “unprofessional conduct,” and referred to his dog-walking on campus as “manipulative behavior.”

The Sept. 20 and Sept. 22 lawsuits alleged that the victims and Flynn made “provably false” statements to the media after they brought forward their allegations. Flynn, however, said what he and his clients said to the media were all statements that were made in the DFEH lawsuit itself.

“Any speech that’s made as part of a judicial proceeding … is absolutely protected,” Flynn said.

Wentworth is suing for an award of compensatory damages — which he assessed in the lawsuit to be in excess of $25,000 — as well as the cost of attorneys’ fees and any further relief the court deems just and proper.

Earlier this month, former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry also filed a lawsuit against the UC Board of Regents for racial discrimination. Choudhry, who the campus Title IX office found had violated UC sexual misconduct policy in July 2015, alleged in his lawsuit that the second disciplinary hearing against him is an attempt by the university to “deflect attention from its failure to meaningfully punish Caucasian faculty and administrators who were found to have committed appalling sexual misconduct.”

Michael Hoffman, an attorney for Wentworth, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Check back for updates. 

Contact Jessica Lynn and Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks at [email protected].