“Combat,” “extortion,” “sociopath” and other unsavory terms are swirling around in the tornado of bad publicity blowing through the East Village company once listed by a local publication as one of San Diego’s best places to work. Jason Kulpa, chief executive of San Diego–based ad-tech firm Underground Elephant, claims a former employee and her friend are using the court to “unfairly tarnish” his good name and to bring Underground Elephant to its knees, all in hopes of a large payout.
That former employee, Alyssa Adamson, and her friend Michael Seppanen, tell a different version of the story. Adamson, a former account manager at Underground Elephant (a company that uses social media and other online profiles to direct customers to its clients), says an intoxicated Kulpa forced himself on her after a 2016 company party and beat Seppanen unconscious, fracturing his cheekbone, after being asked to leave Adamson’s apartment.
The story, now unfolding in state court, portrays Kulpa as a womanizing executive who attacked Adamson’s friend after she spurned his advances. His and his lawyer’s willingness to hide information from the judge in order to prevent the lawsuit from becoming public record prompted Adamson’s attorney to label Kulpa a “dangerous sociopath.”
Kulpa, on the other hand, accuses Adamson of faking sexual harassment claims to extort money from him and reap revenge on his company for her professional failures. As for his fight with Seppanen, in court documents Kulpa has referred to it as “mutual combat.”
Underground Elephant comes alive
Launched in 2008, Underground Elephant contracts with large companies and industries to find new clients through social media and online profiles. Banking largely on the rise of for-profit universities, Kulpa took the company from a small Mission Valley office to become a staple of San Diego’s small tech startup community. In recent years Kulpa has posed for photos next to mayor Kevin Faulconer. He sits on the board of the San Diego Police Foundation.
During that time, Underground Elephant has received accolades for its employee-centric approach where workers help themselves to free snacks, imbibe craft beer, and shoot games of shuffleboard in an East Village office replete with an employee bar, makeshift speakeasy, and schoolhouse-themed meeting room. In 2014, San Diego Business Journal named Underground Elephant one of the best companies to work for in San Diego.
According to reviews from former employees on job-search website Glassdoor.com, Kulpa has a reputation for making “sexist and demeaning comments to the women.” Another former employee wrote, “[Kulpa] never hesitates to joke about your accent, ethnicity, appearance, performance, etc. that leave employees laughing on the outside but cringing on the inside. Female employees, especially, have commented on their discomfort with his lurking presence and lewd remarks.”
The current lawsuit paints Kulpa and Underground Elephant in much the same light.
The Elephant in the hallway
On August 12, 2016, Kulpa threw a company party for his employees. After the party, Adamson and her guest and high school friend, Seppanen, returned to Adamson’s downtown apartment.
According to a police report obtained by the Reader, Kulpa, a married man, allegedly called Adamson and asked to come over to her house. She agreed but informed him that they weren’t going to “do anything.”
Seppanen told officers that Kulpa had made several sexually “inappropriate” and “unwanted” comments to Adamson throughout the night.
“He kept saying inappropriate things to her and she kept telling him no,” Seppanen told officers. “When he came over he kept saying stuff to her and he told me that she was interested. I kept letting him know that she wasn’t interested.”
According to Seppanen’s statement, he heard Adamson and Kulpa in the hallway and went to check on her. Kulpa approached him with clenched fists. Seppanen says the next thing he remembers was waking up bloody on Adamson’s bathroom floor.
According to a complaint Adamson later filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, after repeatedly punching Seppanen, Kulpa forced a kiss on her before leaving.
Security guards inside the building called police, alerting them of the fight and blood in the hallway. When police arrived, Adamson was disheveled and visibly intoxicated. She refused to identify Kulpa by name. She worried that the report would go public and she would be fired.
Officers found Seppanen on Adamson’s bathroom floor with a cut to his chin, a fractured left cheekbone, and suffering from a possible concussion. Paramedics were called to the scene and transported him to the University of California San Diego hospital in Mission Hills.
Officers recommended Kulpa be charged with felony battery charges; however, no charges were filed.
In September 2016, Adamson, who had not returned to work, filed a claim with the state in order to initiate a lawsuit.
The Elephant in the court room
On November 8, 2016, Kulpa and his attorney filed a complaint against Adamson and Seppanen, a preemptive strike to prevent any future lawsuit from going public. Kulpa’s attorneys said Adamson and Seppanen were looking to “unfairly tarnish” Kulpa’s reputation and that of his company.
While attempting to have the court records sealed, Kulpa and his attorney Joseph Leventhal failed to inform the judge that they had already entered into settlement discussions with Adamson’s and Seppanen’s attorney, Dan Gilleon. In addition, Kulpa accused Adamson and Seppanen of extortion.
Kulpa testified on December 9 that Adamson had invited him to her apartment for a party. He stated that Seppanen was intoxicated and threatened Kulpa. Kulpa countered that he left the apartment and while waiting for an elevator Seppanen attacked him.
“I repelled Seppanen,” testified Kulpa. “Both Seppanen and myself were slightly injured as a result of the exchange.” Kulpa failed to state that Seppanen had been knocked unconscious and was bleeding.
He later testified that Adamson then told him that he needed to pay her $20,000 in exchange for her and her friend’s silence. “I understand that, because she believed her salary would be increased, Adamson refused to give my name to the police that investigated that evening. It appears that, only after she believed she could use the incident to get more money, she changed her mind, embellished and fabricated parts of the incident that evening/early morning, and sought to get more money.”
More inducement to have the record sealed — Kulpa said he worried about a loss of business due to the negative publicity. “The consequences of this lost business would result in dozens, if not scores, of lost jobs at Underground Elephant.”
In a court deposition, Seppanen’s mother, Fay Isaacson, says she called Kulpa on December 2, 2016, to discuss Kulpa’s claims that her son was trying to extort money from him.
Isaacson said Kulpa attempted to “negotiate” a settlement and “go around the lawyers” to do so. He also cautioned her that a public lawsuit could damage her son’s military career.
Superior Court judge John Meyer considered whether to seal what would otherwise be public documents during a December 16, 2016, hearing.
Meyer did not buy Kulpa’s and his attorney’s version of events.
“In light of the full record, it is apparent that the original [request to seal the record] was less than candid,” Meyer wrote in a tentative ruling days before the hearing.
Meyer said Kulpa and Leventhal left key elements out of their testimony, such as that Gilleon’s $950,000 offer to settle the case was made during a September mediation hearing and not, as described by Leventhal, an attempt to extort Kulpa.
Meyer also criticized Kulpa for inconsistencies in his testimony regarding Seppanen’s injuries.
Meyer found that Kulpa was aware that Seppanen had fractured his cheekbone and spent several days getting treated in the hospital for his injuries. This was in direct contradiction to Kulpa’s December testimony that stated Seppanen’s injuries were superficial.
“[Kulpa] failed to disclose that the medical records were provided during mediation,” wrote Meyer, adding, “[Kulpa] and attorney Leventhal were not straightforward in their application. Given [their] lack of candor…one has to question whether the application to seal was made in good faith.”
Meyer’s ruling officially unsealed the record, making the case public.
Kulpa, through a representative, declined to comment on any pending litigation.
Attorney Gilleon was much more forthcoming: “Kulpa is a wannabe power broker posing as a CEO who uses lawyers and litigation to bully and intimidate those who call him out on his sociopathic ways. He thinks he’s above the law, and people around him, especially his employees, are nothing but objects to exploit.”