CVN screenshot of plaintiff attorney Twila S. White, left, and defense attorney Andrew Smith, right, delivering their opening statements
Los Angeles, CA - A California state court jury heard opening statements Friday in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by two former professors at a small Christian nursing school claiming they were fired for investigating students’ sexual harassment allegations against the school’s founder, and the proceedings are being webcast gavel-to-gavel by Courtroom View Network.
Plaintiffs Anita Bralock and Brandon Fryman accused American University of Health Sciences and its founder, Pastor Gregory Johnson, of retaliating against them after they and a third faculty member launched investigations into complaints raised by multiple students about Johnson’s alleged sexually inappropriate behavior.
Johnson and the school deny the allegations, maintaining that Bralock and Fryman were involved in plans to start a competing school and were fired after failing to cooperate with American University’s investigation into their activities.
Representing Bralock and Fryman, attorney Twila S. White described AUHS to the jury as a small Christian university with 300 students founded by Johnson in 1993.
She explained that since the school receives federal funding it must comply with Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in an educational setting. White also detailed how Johnson filled an unusually large number of administrative roles at the small school, including serving as the school’s Title IX coordinator.
White said that arrangement created an awkward situation starting in 2015 when students raised allegations related to Johnson’s own behavior, a scenario that White likened to “the fox guarding the hen house.”
White said investigations into the allegations, which included claims of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments, began with one of Fryman’s nursing students bringing the complaints to him. Fryman then involved Bralock in her capacity as dean of the nursing school along with a third faculty member. The three faculty members met with the initial complainant at an off campus location to discuss their claims.
White described to the jury an atmosphere on campus where she said students and faculty were expected to attend sessions where they recited and analyzed spiritual guidance from Johnson that White characterized as sexually-themed, and she said Johnson had a reputation on campus as being a “hugger and kisser.”
Johnson supposedly became aware of the investigations, which White claimed were quickly buried after being taken over by Johnson’s attorney. Shortly afterwards Fryman’s salary was cut by half, and he and Bralock were fired following an investigation supposedly related to involvement in a business plan for a competing school, which White characterized as cover for unlawful retaliation related to a Title IX investigation.
White didn’t ask for a specific amount of damages from the school in her opening statement, but she described the personal and professional toll that the events took on Fryman and Bralock, who she said were fired for trying to protect their students.
“If they broke something they need to fix it, and you’ll be deciding what it takes to fix it,” White said.
Representing AUHS, Andrew Smith, managing partner for Tyson & Mendes’ Los Angeles office, told the jury that evidence would show Fryman and Bralock were actively involved in plans to start a competing school, and that Johnson and AUHS had every right to fire employees involved in plans to support a competitor.
Representing Johnson directly, Bob Thompson, managing partner at Callahan Thompson Sherman & Caudill LLP, accused Fryman and Bralock of constructing a false narrative because there’s no statute that lets you sue for getting caught trying to work against your current employer.
Smith told the jury the sessions involving allegedly inappropriate spiritual guidance were completely voluntary, and that Johnson, who Smith repeatedly described as a “man of faith” often didn’t even attend.
Smith said AUHS became aware of a formal business plan to start a new school that referenced Fryman and Bralock by name and urged jurors to ignore White’s arguments that the plan never actually came to fruition.
“This was a going concern, whether or not it exists now,” Smith said.
He said both professors received four months of paid administrative leave and were ultimately fired after refusing to cooperate with the school’s investigation.
Smith said the student allegations against Johnson were determined to be uncorroborated after an investigation led by a school administrator, though he said those results were turned over to an “independent investigator” for further review since that administrator reported to Johnson.
He said that neither Bralock nor Fryman suffered any professional consequences as a result of their termination, noting that Bralock quickly landed a job on the nursing faculty at UCLA and that Fryman worked a number of teaching jobs in the Seattle area.
“These are people who are thriving,” Smith said.
The trial is taking place before Judge J. Stephen Czuleger. CVN is covering the proceedings gavel-to-gavel as part of an ongoing commitment to filming and webcasting “real world trials” of news value to the legal, business and educational communities that CVN primarily serves but aren’t covered by other news media organizations.
The case is captioned Anita Bralock v. American University of Health Sciences Inc., case number BC614955 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
E-mail David Siegel at email@example.com