Tang Center employee, UC regents sued by UC Berkeley student for sex harassment

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A UC Berkeley student filed a sexual harassment lawsuit Thursday against a former Tang Center employee and the UC Board of Regents.

The complaint alleged that when the student was a patient at Tang Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CPS, at UC Berkeley last fall, she was sexually harassed and emotionally abused by Eric Samuels, a psychologist who at the time was a postdoctoral fellow at the clinic assigned to her case.

“Dr. Samuels made sexual advances and solicitations of Plaintiff that were unwelcome and persistent,” the complaint alleged.

Samuels, who no longer works at the Tang Center as of July, said he cannot comment on the litigation until he confers with Tang Center administration.

“This is the first time I’m hearing anything about this,” Samuels said.

The student filed the lawsuit anonymously and is referred to in the complaint as Justina Roe to protect her identity, for fear of retaliation.

John Winer, Roe’s attorney, alleged that the university did not take appropriate action to ensure Roe’s health and safety. He added that Roe decided to file the civil suit because she doesn’t want this to happen to any other students in a similar position.

“She feels very strongly that the system failed her. … She initially wanted a female therapist — they gave her a male intern, and the intern clearly was not supervised enough, and it looks like he was looking out for his prurient interest rather than the benefit of his patient,” Winer alleged.

When Roe started her freshman year at UC Berkeley in fall 2016, she entered the campus’s Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, because she suffered from ADHD and clinical anxiety since adolescence. The complaint said Roe “felt untethered and vulnerable” during her first semester at UC Berkeley and decided to seek help through CPS, where she met Samuels.

On Oct. 11, 2016, Roe went to CPS and filled out the necessary paperwork, the complaint stated. Samuels walked out to introduce himself to her and brought her into his office for a session, according to the complaint. The complaint stated that Roe felt uncomfortable because he was both a trainee therapist and a male, but Roe “didn’t want to make him feel bad by rejecting him” and was “desperate for help,” so she consented to meeting with him. The complaint also stated that Samuels “held eye contact for an unusually long time” with Roe. During her first session with him, Roe told him she was having suicidal thoughts.

Roe scheduled another session with Samuels, continuing to dismiss the discomfort she felt with his behavior, according to the complaint. At her second session with Samuels on Oct. 19, 2016, Roe noticed that there was a video camera in the corner of the room that was facing in her direction, but Samuels didn’t mention it, the complaint alleged.

In several of their sessions, Samuels allegedly made comments about Roe’s sexual relationships and sexual experiences. The complaint alleged that in one session, Samuels asked Roe if she had ever had sex. Roe froze and did not want to answer him, and she was uncomfortable because he was allegedly filming their session. She told him no, and the complaint alleged that Samuels “looked at her like she was not normal, which humiliated Plaintiff, and made her feel insecure.”

The complaint alleged that Samuels asked Roe if she had ever masturbated and if she had any sexual fantasies. Roe stated in the complaint that she was intimidated by Samuels’ position of authority on campus and that she felt like she had to answer his questions honestly.

According to the complaint, after the session, Roe called her mother and told her how “yucky she felt over her entire body.”

“Dr. Samuels saw that he was making her very uncomfortable but did not stop what he was doing and, indeed, seemed to be feeding pruriently off of her vulnerability,” the complaint alleged. “Immediately afterwards, she felt violated, exploited, and traumatized. Her stability and focus were now even more compromised.”

Samuels allegedly did not ask Roe to consent to be filmed until the third session, according to the complaint. After that session, Roe met with CPS Director Gloria Saito, who apologized and told her that the camera should have been facing Samuels to preserve patient confidentiality.

During the meeting with Saito, Samuels allegedly emailed Roe saying that he had deleted the video, although Saito had previously told Roe that the two videos could only be viewed by Samuels’ supervisor, Dr. Aaron Cohen. When Roe mentioned this, Saito allegedly said she had made a mistake and that there was actually only one video.

Saito allegedly confirmed that it was possible for Samuels to have sent the video to himself.

After her first session with Samuels, Roe scheduled an appointment with eating disorder treatment specialist Kyla Flug. According to the lawsuit, however, Cohen told Samuels that he and Flug could not treat Roe at the same time, and Flug agreed to allow Samuels to treat Roe for her eating issues without consulting Roe first.

Between her second and third sessions with Samuels, Roe, who had been struggling with a restrictive eating disorder, had a purging episode for the first time.

The complaint stated that after the incident, Roe felt uncomfortable among her male professors. She also developed stomach pains whenever she passed by the Tang Center, so she avoided it even when she needed its services, such as when she was severely sick with the flu.

About Nov. 3, 2016, Saito wrote to Roe, reassuring her “you will not run into to (Dr. Samuels) should you wish to use any of the Tang services, including CPS,” according to the complaint. But about March 25, Roe ran into Samuels when she exited a biology class on campus, causing her to have nightmares involving her being sexually violated at gunpoint.

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email that it was “premature” for the campus to comment on the litigation as of press time because the UC regents had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

A UC spokesperson could not be reached for comment as of press time.

This lawsuit comes at a time when the UC system has faced a string of sexual misconduct allegations. Last spring, The Daily Californian obtained hundreds of pages of UC Title IX investigations that revealed 124 cases of sexual misconduct across the UC system. Many of these investigations involved notable campus faculty members, including former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law Sujit Choudhry and renowned campus philosophy professor emeritus John Searle.

Winer was also an initial attorney for Tyann Sorrell in her lawsuit against Choudhry.

Winer said he hopes the lawsuit against Samuels will stop an incident of this nature from happening again to other students.

“I think that the university appears to have a problem with putting appropriate controls in place to prevent sexual abuse from occurring,” Winer alleged. “I know they’re trying to improve it, but apparently they haven’t gone far enough.”

Contact Malini Ramaiyer, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, Chantelle Lee, Harini Shyamsundar and Ashley Wong at [email protected].