Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Community College Settles Sex Case Lawsuit for $2.5M

A former secretary at El Camino College near Torrance who accused her boss — a dean — of sexual harassment will receive $2.5 million in a settlement with the school.

The secretary, Nyesha Artiaga of Los Angeles, said the former dean, James Schwartz, subjected her to more than two years of sexual harassment and allegedly raped her in his locked office, according to court documents.

The community college will pay about a third of the settlement, or $833,000, and its insurance company will pick up the bulk of the rest, although Schwartz was ordered to chip in $25,000.

Artiaga said the harassment took place from 2007 to 2009. In graphically worded court documents, Artiaga, 33, accused Schwartz, 74, of groping her, demanding sex on his birthday and threatening to fire her or downgrade her performance review if she refused to have sex with him.

The documents also state that Schwartz, then the interim dean of fine arts, offered her up to $800 in exchange for sex in hotel rooms. While Schwartz did not deny that they had a sexual relationship, he contended that it was consensual.

The case is a setback to El Camino, which in recent months has been defending itself against two similar harassment cases that are intertwined with Ariaga’s.

In October, the college was vindicated when a judge ruled mostly in favor of the district in a sexual harassment and discrimination case filed by a former dean, Kristi Blackburn, who claimed she was the victim of a “good old boys” club.

The third case is set to begin today, with a jury trial in Los Angeles. In that one, former professor Carmen Hunt says the district tried to force her out for taking extended leaves of absence due to post-traumatic stress stemming from an alleged sexual assault by a former dean (not Schwartz).

As for the Artiaga case, the former secretary also made claims against El Camino’s current vice president of academic affairs, Francisco Arce, who was Schwartz’s superior before Schwartz’s decadeslong tenure ended in June.

Artiaga said Arce had had it in for her even before Schwartz became her boss in March 2007. For instance, she said Arce had coerced Schwartz’s predecessor – Blackburn – to give her a negative performance review. (Blackburn concurred in the lawsuit she lost.)

El Camino officials went public with the settlement on Tuesday during their regular school board meeting. As part of the settlement, which the El Camino board approved in closed session in January, Artiaga agreed to quit her job and never to apply for employment with El Camino again.

Public disclosure of the settlement wasn’t required by law, but school board President Bill Beverly said the board decided to do so largely to show it has nothing to hide.

“Now maybe people will know, if this should ever happen to them, to stand up and say something – this isn’t Libya,” he said. “I believe if somebody is taken advantage of or trodden upon, they are going to get protected, and the bad guy is going to get what’s coming to them. Maybe this will prevent it from happening – or from happening again if it did happen.”

But Beverly also said nobody besides Artiaga and Schwartz really knows what happened between them. He insisted that while Artiaga often filed complaints to human resources about other co-workers and bosses, she never – to his knowledge – filed anything internally about the alleged abuse from Schwartz.

“If someone had come to us when the incident first occurred, we would have immediately separated them and gotten to the bottom of it,” he said. “But you have to give us a chance to protect you. It’s like expecting the police to show up and protect you from a burglary if you don’t call.”

Schwartz’s administrative career with El Camino spanned four decades. He served as the dean of health sciences and athletics from 1975 to 1996, the interim vice president of academic affairs from 1996 to 2005, the interim dean of fine arts from 2007 to 2009, and the interim dean of the health services and athletics division from 2009 until his departure in June.

In 2009, he was inducted into the El Camino College Athletic Hall of Fame. During his last year at El Camino, his annual salary was about $141,000, according to a college record.

While accounts differ as to whether the relations were consensual, nobody disputes that there were improper sexual relations between a supervisor and a subordinate, Beverly said.

“The disappointment on the part of the board is that a trusted and well-liked employee (Schwartz) at a minimum exercised very bad judgment and at a maximum, who knows,” Beverly said. “No. 2, we have an employee who allegedly was being subjected to – again, in the worst light – some type of extorted behavior.”

Schwartz, who didn’t return a call requesting comment, was hired as Artiaga’s superior in March 2007, after Blackburn left the post amid turbulence with Arce.

Also unavailable for comment were Artiaga’s attorney, Trina Roderick, and the college’s attorney, Larry Frierson.

“Upon their first introduction, Schwartz hugged Artiaga for an uncomfortably long time, his body making contact with both of her breasts and pelvis,” said a complaint for damages filed by Artiaga’s lawyers about a year ago. “Artiaga felt groped as Schwartz patted her back and kissed her on the cheek.”

On Sept. 14 of that year, Artiaga said, Schwartz requested sex as a birthday gift. Meanwhile, her office mates, unaware of the dynamic between them, were planning a surprise birthday party for him.

“They treated him as if he were a god … worshipping the ground he walked on and digesting every word that came out of his mouth,” she said in a written testimony. “UNBELIEVABLE how much power one man can have.”

By her telling, the co-workers arranged to hold the surprise party at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro in Torrance. They asked Artiaga to drive Schwartz to the party, and she played along. In the car, on the way to the party, she said, Schwartz began groping her, allegedly pushing her head into his groin area. She said he demanded they get a hotel room.

“I panicked, knowing that the office staff was waiting for us at the restaurant,” she wrote. Artiaga said she suggested they get a glass of wine at P.F. Chang’s.

“He agreed! To further the humiliation, he patted my head as if I were a dog,” she wrote.

When they entered the restaurant, the surprise party was waiting.

“The SHOCK on his face when he saw our staff was priceless,” she wrote. “He was very angry with me but could not openly express himself with everyone around so instead he kept nudging me under the table.”

It was later that day that the alleged rape took place, according to her written account.

By August 2009, Schwartz had moved on to become the interim dean of physical education, but was still responsible for her performance evaluation. According to court documents, Schwartz met with her on campus and showed her two completed evaluations, one negative and one “slightly positive.”

“He then began rubbing Artiaga’s legs, telling her it was her `decision.”‘

According to a written complaint filed with the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Schwartz harassed Artiaga on her voice mail at work as recently as September 2009.

“Ms. Artiaga believes Mr. Schwartz has sexually harassed other employees he has supervised and that the employer knew, or had reason to know, that Mr. Schwartz had a history of sexually harassing the employees he supervised,” the complaint said.

In July 2009, Constance Fitzsimons had taken over as the dean of fine arts. Artiaga accused her, too, of retaliation and harassment.

“In their first meeting, Fitzsimons told Artiaga that Schwartz and Arce `told (her) things about’ Artiaga,” the complaint said. “Fitzsimons, from her first day as Artiaga’s supervisor, has micromanaged Artiaga’s work in a clear attempt to `find cause’ to terminate her employment.”