An anonymous licensed attorney hired by the University of Southern California as a senior investigator for its Office of Conduct, Accountability, and Professionalism (OCAP) alleges in a sprawling lawsuit that the school systemically interferes with investigations into misconduct allegations against high-ranking employees.
The plaintiff, who was hired by USC around March 2018, claims they were placed on administrative leave in retaliation by the school “shortly prior to their completion” of an investigation into alleged “severe and pervasive” misconduct by two high-ranking employees before being removed from what the 58-page complaint dubs “Investigation X.”
The lawsuit alleges there have been numerous instances in which the plaintiff has conducted the vast majority of an investigation into workplace misconduct and violations of university policy only to be pulled off the inquiry, and for the investigation to be handed off to another investigator and submitted on the basis of the plaintiff’s work.
According to the 58-page lawsuit, USC, among other alleged misconduct:
Systematically destroys employment and workplace-investigation files, even after being served with preservation notices;
Intentionally conceals documents it is required by law to produce;
Maintains “shadow” personnel files apart from its regular personnel files;
Maintains a “pattern and practice” of promoting predetermined findings with regard to workplace investigations;
Misclassifies intakes so as to preclude responding parties from procedural protections;
Runs afoul of its own policies to create “dirt files” on faculty vocal against the university; and
Per the complaint, the plaintiff, identified as “Doe,” was brought into USC’s newly formed Office of Conduct, Accountability, and Professionalism more than two years ago and continues work in the role of senior investigator. The school represented to the plaintiff that OCAP was to be USC’s internal department for investigating allegations of workplace misconduct, specifically alleged violations of USC policy and not concerns statutorily governed by state or federal laws, the case says.
Thereafter, however, USC assigned the plaintiff to investigate two Title IX sexual harassment/assault complaints even though the individual informed the school, and the school was aware, they were not trained as a Title IX investigator under USC policies, the lawsuit relays.
In the role of investigator, the plaintiff would interview witnesses, collect and review evidence and issue findings with regard to violations of USC policy, the case continues. In the course of an investigation, the suit says, the plaintiff would compile reports based on what they were told by witnesses and the evidence that was reviewed. Per the complaint, the plaintiff expected to make factual findings regarding the “credibility of witnesses, the congruence of differing narratives, and other subtleties that required the eye and judgment of a trained professional who had observed the witnesses being interviewed and compared all the evidence.”
“Plaintiff, as an OCAP investigator, was expected to conduct investigations and, thereafter, assemble a report detailing the evidence found, analyzing that evidence, and reaching an initial determination as to whether ‘University Policy’ had been violated,” the suit summarizes.
The plaintiff asserts in the lawsuit that OCAP, contrary to USC’s warranties, did not provide an internal process for collegially resolving disputes. Though the school has in place formal faculty grievance and staff complaint procedures, augmented by binding arbitration if necessary, the parties involved in OCAP investigations, the plaintiff says, were provided with neither adequate procedural protections nor an opportunity to review the evidence collected against them and respond. Similarly, the parties whose complaints have initiated OCAP investigations were also not provided with adequate procedural protections or opportunities to review and rebut evidence or participate in hearings, the lawsuit claims.
As the case tells it, the lack of adequate procedural protections in OCAP investigations made it particularly important for the plaintiff to personally reach factual findings and determinations in investigations with regard to the “meaning, veracity, trustworthiness, credibility, and congruence” of witness statements.
According to the complaint, USC retaliated against the plaintiff for protected activities by, among other actions, removing the individual from investigations shortly prior to their completion and assigning those investigations to others to finish. The plaintiff, who says they were informed by management of “the importance of politics at USC,” further claims to have been removed from specific investigations due to the defendant or its managing agents’ “unfair, unlawful or fraudulent” desire to “protect employees that had engaged in severe or pervasive misconduct” and hide “unlawful or unethical behavior.”
The suit centers in particular on an investigation—“Investigation X”—into two high-ranking USC employees about whom the plaintiff reportedly received “significant and consistent reports of severe and pervasive workplace misconduct,” namely bullying. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff was placed on retaliatory administrative leave after providing to their superior, Gretchen Dahlinger-Means, a status report indicating there was corroborated evidence that the two USC employees had violated university policy. After the plaintiff was removed from the investigation, Investigation X was given to another employee, who, after reviewing the plaintiff’s notes and materials, drafted the report on the inquiry.
According to the suit, both employees at the center of Investigation X have since been promoted at USC, an outcome the plaintiff says is surprising given USC higher-ups were aware of the gravity of the inquiry. The plaintiff asserts that despite confirming the validity of the complaints that sparked Investigation X with their superiors, USC moved quickly to change course.
“When Plaintiff communicated those impressions to her superiors, Plaintiff, as stated, was removed from the investigation. The investigation was reassigned, the complaining party was terminated, and the respondents were promoted,” the suit says.
The case rounds out by arguing USC’s arbitration agreement should not be allowed to stand given policy allows the school to “exploit the arbitral forum in its favor” and is therefore “illegal, unconscionable, contrary to public policy, prejudicial to the public interest, void, lacks free consent, and obtained through fraud, deceit and/or mistake of fact.”
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