UCLA Spirit Squad director’s attorneys challenge harassment findings
A former UCLA Spirit Squad director — who wants a judge to set aside sexual harassment findings that led to her 2019 dismissal after a Title IX investigation of her role in allowing some team members to attend a live burlesque show in Las Vegas in 2018 — believed beforehand that the performance was to be a “Cirque du Soleil” type of event, her attorneys say in new court papers.
Mollie Vehling, 45, brought the petition in June 2021 in Los Angeles Superior Court against the UC regents and the UCLA Title IX Office, alleging both failed to grant her a fair Title IX hearing, failed to proceed in the manner required by law and committed a “prejudicial abuse of discretion.”
Vehling’s attorneys filed an opening brief on her behalf on Thursday ahead of an Aug. 30 hearing on her petition before Judge Mary H. Strobel.
Vehling headed the UCLA Spirit Squad for almost two decades. She was put on leave in December 2018 and fired in May 2019.
The Spirit Squad attends basketball and football games to cheer on UCLA’s teams, but the squad’s responsibilities extend beyond just dancing or cheering in that they also are ambassadors for UCLA who help maintain positive relationships with high-profile UCLA donors, Vehling’s lawyers state in their court papers.
The university found that Vehling directed some members of the squad to accompany former state Sen. Alan Robbins to the “Absinthe” show at Caesars Palace in November 2018 while the team was in Las Vegas for a men’s basketball tournament in violation of the UC policy on sexual violence and sexual harassment.
Robbins, a Democrat who represented his Los Angeles-area district in the state Senate from 1974-91, is a UCLA graduate and longtime school donor.
“Mollie Vehling had no notice that merely extending an invitation for Spirit Squad members to attend the `Absinthe’ show at Caesar’s Palace could subject her to charges for sexual harassment and end her 19-year career with the UCLA Spirit Squad,” her lawyers argue in their court papers.
Vehling reviewed the Caesar’s Palace website and perceived the show to be a Cirque du Soleil-type of event and she sent a GroupMe text asking the squad members if they wanted to take advantage of the opportunity during their free time, her attorneys stated in their court papers.
The “Absinthe” show is rated for individuals 18 and older and all of the Spirit Squad members who attended the show were over the age of 18, plus there was no nudity, according to Vehlings’ attorneys’ court papers.
During the performance, a show emcee who was likely a female performer saw that some Spirit Squad members arrived late and directed offensive comments at them, according to Vehling’s attorneys’ court papers.
“When notified via text that the students were uncomfortable, Ms. Vehling advised that they should leave immediately with a buddy,” Vehling’s lawyers state in their court papers.
Robbins sent an email apologizing for the “Absinthe” show and the bad experience of the Spirit Squad, according to Vehling’s attorneys’ court papers.
In November 2018, UCLA’s Title IX office was notified that several members of the Spirit Squad said they had experienced harassing behavior when they attended the show with Robbins, Vehling’s lawyers state in their court papers.
Several female UCLA Spirit Squad members thought that Robbins was “creepy” and were uneasy dealing with him, but his alleged conduct was improperly used to justify the actions taken against Vehling, her lawyers state in their court papers.
Throughout the UCLA Title IX investigation, Vehling was denied access to her work emails, work phone and work files so she could respond, Vehling’s lawyers argue in their court papers.
Although the majority of the students who attended the show did not indicate that they felt the show amounted to harassment, the Title IX investigator found there was “sufficient evidence to conclude that the students, as a whole, felt that the behavior they were subjected to was severe,” according to Vehling’s lawyers’ court papers.
In February 2019, Public Interest Investigations Inc., was retained by UCLA to investigate allegations that Robbins “had engaged in a pattern of conduct that could be considered harassing, intimidating and disruptive to University activities, specifically with regard to members of the UCLA student Spirit Squad,” Vehling’s lawyers state in their court papers.
PII investigators interviewed 11 Spirit Squad members, six UCLA staff members and four third-party witnesses — and also spoke to Robbins twice — before determining he was “responsible for sexual harassment,” Vehling’s lawyers state in the court papers.
However, PII’s findings were overruled in September 2019 by a UCLA administrative vice-chancellor who found that there was no evidence showing that Robbins “engaged in unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors, or other unwelcome verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature in a severe, persistent or pervasive manner,” according to Vehling’s lawyers’ court papers.
“UCLA continued to welcome Mr. Robbins as a valued donor and to accept his sizable donations to the university,” the Vehling attorneys state in their court papers.