The University of Southern California drop-kicked football coach John Robinson after a subpar season, but it’s sticking with the longtime coach on the legal gridiron. The school is defending itself and Robinson against a lawsuit alleging that he sexually harassed former administrative assistant Norma Navarro.
In the suit — filed in Los Angeles the day before Christmas — Navarro also accused Robinson, assistant athletic director Steven Lopes and USC of job discrimination and wrongful termination. The litigation caps a difficult year for Robinson, putting the legendary coach in an unflattering and apparently unaccustomed position.
For Navarro — who insists she is pursuing justice — the terrain appears more familiar. Twice in the last decade, ex-boyfriends have won restraining orders against her for allegedly harassing them. In her lawsuit against USC, Navarro, 35, contends that Robinson, 62, approached her in December 1996 after a meeting in which they discussed Navarro’s work- and wage-related grievances. Robinson allegedly suggested that “he could arrange for her employment terms and conditions to be fair and equitable” if she “would have dinner with [him] and/or capitulate to past sexual suggestions.” According to the complaint, the sexual suggestion was nothing more explicit than an invitation to dinner, but “Robinson’s demeanor [and] tone of voice and [the] innuendo suggested in his comment,” the complaint explains, were “consistent with his past . . . sexually harassing and suggestive behavior toward Ms. Navarro.”
This alleged past behavior, said Navarro attorney Diana P. Scott, included regular pats on the buttocks and suggestive comments. The complaint, however, specifically recounts only one episode: a “bet” Robinson posed to Navarro at the beginning of a recent Trojan football season. “If USC won the Rose Bowl,” Robinson allegedly asserted, “Ms. Navarro would be required to let [Robinson] watch her use an artificial penis between her breasts.”
Through university attorneys, Robinson, who has been married to his current wife for almost eight years, denied any wrongdoing.
The harassment allegations fill one section of a complaint that lays out a litany of mistreatment claims. Among other things, the former administrative assistant claims she was underpaid and given a lower job classification than a male employee in a comparable job, then summarily fired last spring for making an issue of it.
A 1996 internal university review apparently found at least some merit in Navarro’s demand for back pay, awarding her $11,000 in spring 1997. The suit seeks additional, unspecified damages “in an amount [that] will punish Defendants and make an example of them.”
University attorneys insist that Navarro already has received all the money to which she is entitled. Still, after protracted negotiations, they anticipated a lawsuit over money. The sexual-harassment allegations, however, caught the university by surprise; they had never surfaced in extensive negotiations with Navarro over other issues, said USC general counsel Robert Lane. These allegations first appeared in a complaint Navarro filed in early December with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Reached at home in Redondo Beach, Navarro played down the sexual-harassment portion of her suit. “This is not about harassment,” she said. “It is about labor laws and violations and unlawful practices” by the university. She would not elaborate on Robinson’s alleged sexual advances.
But an ex-boyfriend, who dated Navarro while she worked at USC, sided with Robinson. “While I was dating her, she never mentioned any problem with John Robinson, not one, not once,” said the man, who cited Navarro’s readiness to file lawsuits as his reason to remain anonymous.
Navarro had little to say about her past brushes with litigation, in which she was an alleged harasser. Throughout much of 1996, while she was embroiled in a wage dispute with USC, Navarro was allegedly badgering former boyfriend John E. Miller of Manhattan Beach. Miller filed a petition for a restraining order against her, saying, “I fear I will suffer physical harm due to the unstable mental status” of Navarro. In court documents, Miller claimed that Navarro made repeated phone calls to his home and paged him incessantly, often late at night, trying to persuade Miller to re-establish their court ship. According to his account, she also took to sitting in front of his house in her car. He said that at some times, she would ring his doorbell and quickly leave. In one instance, she appeared unannounced and refused to leave until police were called. Officers pursued her, citing her for drunk driving. Although the court record does not indicate if the harassment allegations were ever proved, a judge did grant a restraining order against Navarro in May 1996.
Over the next four months, according to documents also filed by Miller, Navarro violated the injunction a half-dozen times, including via an alleged burglary of Miller’s house to remove evidence of her phone calls and letters. The court finally granted Miller a permanent injunction, prohibiting Navarro from contacting him in any way until 1999.
Navarro in turn accused Miller of harassment, saying he sometimes showed up at her workplace.
In a similar case, another judge, in December 1987, granted an earlier ex-boyfriend a temporary restraining order that directed Navarro to stay away. In this episode, Jeffrey C. Young of Lawndale accused Navarro of assaulting him, vandalizing his new Porsche and stealing his Datsun 300ZX. He also said that Navarro had removed $1,000 from his account by forging his signature on checks. Once again, it’s not clear in the court record if any of these allegations were proved, but the judge did order Navarro to keep her distance.
Navarro, who is single, was reluctant to discuss her past problems. She suggested, however, that her behavior toward Miller was not out of the ordinary. “At some time or another,” she said, “everyone experiences problems ending a relationship.”
Navarro’s lawyer was indignant when asked about how Navarro’s personal history might affect her credibility in her case against Robinson. “These issues are totally irrelevant to our claims,” Scott said. “They won’t be introduced” to a jury.