CVN screenshot of plaintiff attorney Twila S. White delivering her closing argument
Los Angeles, CA - A California state court jury awarded $2.4 million on Thursday to two professors who claimed they were fired from a small Christian nursing school in retaliation for launching an investigation into sexual harassment claims against the school’s founder.
The jury awarded compensatory damages totaling roughly $654,000 to Anita Bralock, a former dean of the nursing school at the American University of Health Sciences, and $751,000 to Brandon Fryman, a former professor at the school, in addition to $500,000 each in punitive damages.
The verdict followed a lengthy trial that began August 20 and saw its duration nearly doubled as a result of a shortened daily schedule due to Covid-19 restrictions. The full proceedings were webcast gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
Bralock and Fryman accused the university and its founder, Paster Gregory Johnson, of violating Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in any school that receives federal funding, along with the Fair Employment and Housing Act, a California state statute that prohibits harassment or retaliation based on a protected characteristic like gender.
Both professors claimed Johnson fostered an overly sexualized and hostile work environment at the school, and that Johnson’s role as the school’s Title IX coordinator created an impermissible conflict of interest after students raised allegations of unwanted touching and sexually inappropriate comments.
However attorneys for Johnson and the university maintained the professors were fired due to their supposed involvement in plans to start a competing school and their alleged failure to cooperate with a university investigation into those activities.
Bralock and Fryman’s attorney, Twila S. White, asked the jury to award nearly $40 million to her clients. White told CVN after the trial that the jury focused on the retaliation aspects of the case as opposed to finding in favor of the plaintiffs regarding their hostile work environment claims.
White said despite that finding the multi-million verdict is significant for other private schools like AUHS that receive federal funding.
“I think it sends a message particularly I would say to religious schools, because this pastor was trying to hide behind religion and community service and all of those things to shift the focus from the wrongdoing that he had engaged in,” White said.
Defense attorney Andrew Smith, who represented AUHS and is the managing partner for Tyson & Mendes’ Los Angeles office, told CVN after the trial it was clear the jury refused to award a “nuclear verdict” in the case.
CVN screenshot of defense attorney Andrew Smith delivering his closing argument
“I believe the jury saw my clients are caring individuals who are always giving back to the community. My clients took responsibility in this case, which the jury recognized,” Smith said. “Ultimately, the jury focused on the retaliatory aspect of the school’s actions and found there was no harassment or hostile work environment on the part of the school or the individual defendant.”
Smith characterized the verdict, which he described as a “highly specific finding” as “less than 5 percent of the plaintiffs ask of the jury, and less than half of their lowest settlement demand ever.”
White declined to comment on any settlement negotiations in the case citing confidentiality restrictions, but she did emphasize that the trial occurred after a failed mediation, numerous failed settlement conferences and the defeat of four motions for summary judgment filed by the defense.
Smith said that while his team respects the jury’s decision they would explore all post-trial options, but White expressed confidence the verdict would survive intact.
“Most defendants do file notices of appeal in my experience,” White said. “When I think about the trial I don’t really see a lot of avenues that they would have to appeal the verdict.”
White also indicated she would be eligible under both Title IX and FEHA to collect “astronomical” attorneys fees.
“We litigated this case for five years and it was scorched Earth litigation,” she said, noting she recently received approval to bill at $900/hour.
In addition to Smith, White also faced off against Robert Thompson of Callahan Thompson Sherman & Caudill LLP, who serves as the firm’s managing partner and represented Johnson personally in the case.
“They were formidable opponents,” White said. “They obviously are very skilled trial attorneys, and they seemed to have a lot of firepower, but you know at some point the truth is the light.”
The case marked the first in-person jury trial for both White and Smith since the pandemic shutdown. White described restrictions such as wearing an N95 mask during her opening and closing arguments and being required to remain behind a podium as unfamiliar challenges.
“For me usually I don’t ever want to stand behind a podium - that’s not how I would prefer to try a case,” she said.
White said that while she did not utilize a trial consultant in the case that she did make extensive use of focus groups before the trial, and that she did so entirely in-house without spending large sums of money on an outside company to run the mock panels.
“They’re fairly easy to put together,” she said.
White described the personal challenges she faced during the trial following the April death of her brother, Anthony White, from Covid-19. White was a 31-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“This trial was in his honor because every ounce of courage I had I got from him,” she said. “He was the strongest person I knew, and how he battled and fought to live - I channeled that strength every single day.”
The trial took place before Judge Stephen Czuleger.
The plaintiffs were also represented by Iverson Matthew Jackson of the Iverson Matthew Jackson Law Firm PC, and Johnson was also represented by Alex Zolg of Callahan Thompson Sherman & Caudill LLP.
Gavel-to-gavel video of the trial is available with a subscription to CVN's online trial video library, which contains hundreds of civil jury trials involving a wide range of practice areas and featuring many of the top trial attorneys in California and throughout the United States.
The case is captioned Anita Bralock v. American University of Health Sciences Inc., case number BC614955, in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
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