Brandman University dean sues school, alleging wrongful termination

Christine Zeppos, a former Brandman University dean, filed a lawsuit Jan. 14 alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination and wrongful termination, among other allegations. Brandman, located in Irvine, California, is part of the Chapman University system. Panther Archives

10:14 a.m. – This story has been updated.

Christine Zeppos, a former Brandman University dean who was fired in August 2018 in what she said was the result of her claims of witnessing sexual harassment in the workplace, filed a lawsuit Jan. 14 alleging that the school’s administrators created a “toxic, misogynistic fiefdom,” that gave way to a “culture of gender-based harassment and discrimination.”

Among other allegations, the suit alleges sexual harassment, gender discrimination, retaliation, failure to prevent wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The complaint also alleges that the university retaliated against other female employees who complained.

Brandman, which is part of the Chapman University system and has a campus in Irvine, California, denied the allegations made in the lawsuit in an email statement to The Panther, saying that the university’s decision to replace Zeppos as dean of the School of Education was based on an investigation of complaints against Zeppos made by two unnamed female employees.

“Dr. Zeppos’ refusal to accept the investigator’s findings or the corrective action designed to allow her to continue in her role resulted in the University’s decision to seek a new leader for its School of Education,” the university’s statement said.

In an email to The Panther, Chapman President Daniele Struppa wrote that Brandman is a “separately incorporated, accredited, independently managed institution, with its own governance board,” though Struppa serves ex officio on Brandman’s board due to his role as Chapman’s president.

Roberta Dellhime, a spokesperson for Brandman, wrote in an email to The Panther in September 2018 that the school had not received “any complaints of inappropriate sexual conduct related to this matter.”

The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, alleges that in 2016, Zeppos complained to Brandman’s human resources department after witnessing “demeaning” behavior toward women in the workplace by Brandman’s Provost Charles Bullock.

A university-ordered investigation into Bullock’s management style concluded that there was no “harassment, discrimination or retaliation,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which also names the school’s chancellor, Gary Brahm, alleges that after Zeppos’ termination, she was offered a severance package in exchange for a “release of claims,” or what Zeppos interpreted to be her silence on the allegations, which she refused, according to the lawsuit.

In September 2018, Brandman students began circulating a Change.org petition to reinstate Zeppos, using the hashtags #MeToo and #StandWithDrZeppos. Almost 700 people have signed the petition as of Feb. 3.

Brahm and Bullock did not immediately respond to requests for comment.