Professor files for defamation in lawsuit

Associate professor Erick Guerrero filed a lawsuit against 72 professors from Dworak-Peck School of Social Work for libel on Oct. 26, following their public condemnation of Guerrero after he was accused of sexual harassment by a former student in October 2017.

Nearly 70 faculty members actively supported Karissa Fenwick, an alumna who accused Guerrero of sexual misconduct, and signed a letter condemning USC’s actions after Fenwick’s allegations were made public. Guerrero’s lawsuit said that the statements in the letter were false and written with the intention of “malice, oppression and fraud.” Guerrero was placed on suspension by the school for the Fall 2018 semester, and is still listed on the faculty directory.

“[Guerrero], who previously enjoyed a good reputation in the USC community and in the field of social work research, both personally and professionally, was defamed by [the professors’] assertions that [Guerrero] engaged in sexual misconduct and witness intimidation,” the lawsuit read.

The lawsuit also stated that Guerrero has suffered damages worth over $1 million and that the misconduct allegations have damaged his reputation at USC.

The University said it supports the faculty who are being sued by Guerrero and is providing them with legal counsel.

“USC protects the academic freedom of all faculty, of every track, including the freedom to disagree with the administration,” the University said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “Provost Quick has authorized providing the faculty members who were sued with outside legal counsel to defend them.”

John Winer, Fenwick’s attorney, said he is not surprised by Guerrero’s decision to sue in response to the aftermath of the sexual misconduct allegations.

“A favorite strategy of men in powerful positions who get sued or accused of sexual harassment … is to immediately make threats,” he said. “This case has been investigated maybe five times and her allegations have been sustained every time. The University had every right to be able to rely on the results of an unbiased investigation and if something’s true, it cannot be defamation, period.”

The next hearing for the suit against the social work professors will be held at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Feb. 8.

Along with the libel suit, Guerrero also filed a writ of mandamus against the University and various administrators, in an effort to have the California Superior Court review the actions USC took against him, which he claims were improper. A writ is an order from the court to an organization that orders it to fulfill its official duties or correct an abuse of discretion.

In the writ of mandamus, Guerrero claimed that USC failed to complete a proper review of the allegations against him as required by the USC Faculty Handbook.

“The entire case against Dr. Erick Guerrero is based on the personal opinion of OED investigator Donna Wagner regarding two USC female graduate students,” the writ alleged. “Over the past year, no one at USC has ever examined the merits or basis of Ms. Wagner’s opinion.”

Guerrero did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, Mark Hathaway, said he cannot comment on pending litigations.

Alumna Robin Petering, who actively supported Fenwick when she initially filed a complaint against Guerrero, said she is frustrated by the recent lawsuit against the social work professors.

In 2017, Petering co-founded Social Workers to End Rape Culture, which collectively penned a letter in support of Fenwick to the USC community, condemning University administrators for not committing to “a culture of safety, transparency and accountability” on campus.

“It’s been a year since Karissa came forward publicly, and that was already 10 months after the original incident happened that she reported on,” Petering said. “So it’s frustrating to see how long this process is and that despite the fact that the University … during its own investigation, found him responsible multiple times through the appeals.”

The writ of mandamus also claimed that disciplinary action against Guerrero was done with the intention of saving former President C. L. Max Nikias’ image after “a series of very public failures in leadership.”