USC Grad Student Sues Professor, University Over Sexual Harassment

A graduate student at the University of Southern California has accused her former professor and advisor of making sexual advances — including throwing himself at her and trying to force a kiss inside a Seattle hotel room — in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that alleges the university kept the professor on staff after investigating and finding the student's claims to be truthful.

Erick Guerrero is seen in a photo from the University of Southern California.

Erick Guerrero is seen in a photo from the University of Southern California.

In the suit, Karissa Fenwick, 34, alleges her dissertation advisor and mentor at USC's School of Social Work, Erick Guerrero, repeatedly made unwelcome advances toward her, once describing a "sexual tension" between them as well as putting his arms around her to force his lips onto hers, according to court records.

Along with suing Guerrero, the suit also names the university itself as a defendant.

It states Fenwick received multiple letters from university officials saying they investigated her claims and found them to be truthful based on evidence and witnesses.

But Guerrero was never fired and "will still be allowed to teach and interact with female students," court records state, even after he allegedly told USC investigators there was a "sexualized" environment on campus in which he was seen as the "hot Latino professor."

The university has since said it took Fenwick's complaint "very seriously," in an email to KTLA.

"[USC] thoroughly investigated the claims, and based on the findings it disciplined the faculty member involved," the email states.

This discipline included "a financial penalty" and Guerrero "was barred from leadership positions, his office was relocated away from students, and he will not teach classes or supervise students for the current academic year and beyond," the email states. "And he was warned that any recurrence or retaliation could lead to dismissal."

Still, the lawsuit states that wasn't enough given the gravity of Guerrero's behavior, seeking damages for charges including sexual harassment, battery and gender violence, among others.

"If you sexually assault a person in a hotel room, you should be fired," Fenwick's attorney, John Winer, said at a news conference.

The lawsuit details Guerrero making sexual comments about students' bodies, offering unwelcome invites to dinner and other outings and physically touching students.

Karissa Fenwick gives a tearful account of the sexual advances she says Erick Guerrero, an associate professor at USC, made toward her. (Credit: KTLA)

Karissa Fenwick gives a tearful account of the sexual advances she says Erick Guerrero, an associate professor at USC, made toward her. (Credit: KTLA)

Another alleged victim of Guerrero, described in the suit as "Student X," told of the associate professor making comments about her body, putting his arms around her before asking about her dating life, and inviting her to go to the opera with him in a call to her cell phone, court records state.

He once told the student's boyfriend at a university dinner event, "You have good taste, and I’m not talking about your plate of food."

That student also told another professor about Guerrero but the university never made a legitimate investigation into any of the student's claims, according to the lawsuit.

Student X experienced the unwelcome sexual advances from Guerrero beginning in 2011 and Fenwick said the advances went on from at least 2015 until January 2017, according to the lawsuit.

Guerrero's advances toward Fenwick went from inappropriate comments, like saying stairs would be good for her butt, to an incident in January 2017 when he actually became physically aggressive with her, the suit alleges.

While attending a convention in New Orleans for their research, Guerrero and Fenwick went for a drink after dinner at his urging, court records allege. At one point, Guerrero approached her from behind and "put his hands on her lower back and waist, and shoved a dollar into the front pocket of her jeans," court records allege.

Later that same evening, Guerrero said there was a "sexual tension" between them and that he had always thought about her sexually, according to the suit. Fenwick was confused and insisted on going back to her own hotel, according to the lawsuit, but Guerrero insisted she come to his and that he'd call her a cab from there, the suit alleges.

Fenwick went with a plan "to talk it out and firmly put a stop to the situation," the suit states.

Once inside the room, Guerrero ordered an Uber and as Fenwick got up to leave, he "put his hands on the sides of her arms as she walked past and guided her over to his bed, where he then sat her down and leaned in for a kiss," the suit alleges. His lips touched hers, but "she did not reciprocate," the suit alleges.

Fenwick later said at a news conference his advances in the hotel room were "only stopping once I yelled in protest and ran past him out of the room." She ran into her Uber car in tears, the lawsuit states.

The next morning, she told another professor about the incident, according to the lawsuit.

When she had to do a presentation with Guerrero a few days later, he threatened her to keep quiet afterward, she later said at a news conference.

"He told me that if I ever told anybody about what happened, that it would ruin both of our careers," she said through tears. "That he would take down anybody that I told and that the dean would never take my side or let anything happen to him."

"So at that point, I was terrified," she said.

As her dissertation advisor, he had full control over that as well as her "ability to graduate" and "my reputation in the field I wanted to get a job in," she said.

Just five days later, Fenwick reported Guerrero to the Office of Equity and Diversity.

Then, about five months later in May, she received a letter from the office saying that while her claims had been substantiated by further investigation, it was still being referred to the office's interim director "for determination as to whether or not these findings rise of the level of a policy violation," the lawsuit alleges.

In July, Kenwick received another letter from the office, and this time it included claims that Guerrero made. He told USC investigators there was a "sexualized" environment at the school in which he was seen as the "hot Latino professor," the suit alleges.

Over several months, evidence collected and witnesses interviewed by university investigators led the school to believe Fenwick's claims were truthful and Guerrero's were not, the lawsuit alleges.

In September, a university official denied an appeal made by Guerrero and disciplined him, the suit alleges, but he "received much lesser discipline and will still be allowed to teach and interact with female students." He was never fired from the school.

Since that time, Guerrero has filed a grievance with the USC Faculty Tenure & Privileges Appeals Committee, the suit states.

Meanwhile, Fenwick no longer attends events in the School of Social Work or professional conferences out of fear of seeing Guerrero, the suit alleges. She was unable to co-present a paper with him in August and the whole situation has delayed the process of completing her dissertation, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit alleges the ordeal has essentially "jeopardized" Fenwick's academic and professional career as Guerrero was her primary advisor and in the same research area as her.