A UCLA linguistics professor is suing Big Law’s Seyfarth Shaw and one of its former partners over their investigation of her discrimination and harassment complaints against her former employer, California State University at Fullerton.
The professor, Natalie Operstein, seeks $24 million in compensatory damages, plus a punitive award, attorneys fees and costs.
Seyfarth was supposed to be “an impartial tribunal,” according to her April 17 complaint. Instead, she alleges, the firm had an “ulterior intent to make findings in favor of the employer and its officials for the purpose of being retained again by the state and its officials and by other large employers state- and nationwide,” achieving an unfair economic advantage and increase in market share, making profits well in excess of those from fees paid by Cal State.
Operstein was denied tenure by CSU and let go at the end of the 2015-16 academic year. She and her husband, Craig Ross, also a plaintiff in the suit against Seyfarth, unsuccessfully sued the school, alleging that her denial of tenure was driven by a policy that improperly favored Hispanics.
A federal judge in California dismissed that suit in 2019.
Operstein is now a linguistics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Extension, which offers continuing education classes.
In their state court complaint filed in Los Angeles, Operstein and Ross allege that Seyfarth and then-partner Colleen Regan’s services were “limited to investigation of complaints and did not include investigation of Dr. Operstein or her conduct.” The State Bar of California’s website lists Regan as “inactive” as of Feb. 3.
But instead they “selectively reviewed” evidence in favor of the school and made “false and defamatory statements” to Operstein, including that her accusations were baseless; she was difficult to work with; and she represented a “physical threat” to her co-workers and their families.
The firm failed to use “such skill, prudence, and diligence as lawyers of ordinary skill and capacity specializing in employment law commonly possess and exercise in the performance of the tasks which they undertake,” the complaint alleges.
Causes of Action: Legal malpractice; breach of fiduciary duty; negligence; fraud and deceit; defamation; intentional infliction of emotional distress; loss of consortium.
Relief: $24 million in compensatory damages; punitive damages; cost of suit and attorney fees; prejudgment and postjudgment interest.
Response: Seyfarth Shaw didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Regan couldn’t be located for comment.
The case is Ross v. Seyfarth Shaw, Cal. Super. Ct., No. 20SMCV00587, 4/17/20.