Former college employee sues Occidental for gender discrimination, whistleblower retaliation

A copy of the lawsuit filed by Gunn Coble LLP on behalf of Samantha Bonar Feb. 19, 2019. Julian Willnow/The Occidental

Samantha Bonar, former assistant director of Occidental College’s Office of Marketing & Communications, filed a lawsuit Feb. 19 against the college, Director of Communications and Community Relations Jim Tranquada and Vice President for Marketing and Communications Marty Sharkey.

Bonar, who was employed by Occidental from 2007 to 2018, is suing the college as a corporation, Tranquada as an individual and Sharkey as an individual on 14 causes of action. The allegations include discrimination on the basis of sex/gender; discrimination on the basis of age; whistleblower retaliation; failure to prevent, investigate, and remedy discrimination or retaliation; violation of California’s Fair Pay Act; and unfair and unlawful business practices.

The suit alleges that following Bonar’s hiring for the assistant director of communications position, Occidental created an associate director position intended to focus on media relations. When the then-associate director of communications resigned, Tranquada allegedly instructed Bonar to assume the responsibilities of the role. According to the suit, Bonar sought compensation and a title change for assuming the responsibilities of the higher-level associate position, but was not given either due to gender bias and her public support of anti-sexual assault advocacy on campus. The suit also alleges that the college misrepresented the percentage of first-year students who reported sexual assaults when it participated in a survey for the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, reporting 44 instead of 59 percent.

Bonar’s lawsuit was filed by Gunn Coble LLP, the same firm that represented former Occidental athletics director Jaime Hoffman in her Sept. 24, 2018 lawsuit against the college and President Jonathan Veitch. Hoffman sued on 16 causes of action, including harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation and disability, as well as wrongful termination. According to the Gunn Coble LLP website, the firm specializes in pursuing equal pay and promotional opportunities for women.

In a statement provided to The Occidental by Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Amos Himmelstein on behalf of the defendants, Himmelstein said college policy explicitly prohibits discrimination.

“Oxy remains committed to sustaining a campus environment free of discrimination,” Himmelstein said. “We continue to encourage members of our community to come forward and report any conduct inconsistent with this principle without fear of retaliation. The College will promptly investigate all reports of discrimination and take appropriate action. With respect to this suit, we are confident that the facts will show that the allegations are without merit.”

According to Bonar, her experience working at the college didn’t align with the values that were instilled in her as a student.

“It is heartbreaking to me that Oxy as an institution so cynically betrays the very values I was taught there as a student,” Bonar said. “Oxy should be leading with vision and compassion, chasing change with courage. Instead it has allowed an atmosphere of inequity and injustice to fester, fostering a fearful faculty and silent staff.”