College of the Canyons has been sued again, this time by a former employee alleging discrimination and retaliation.
The civil case, filed March 27, 2018 in Superior Court and brought by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on behalf of Laura Anderson, alleges the college discriminated against her after she suffered a work-related injury.
The suit further claims the school did not make accommodations, retaliated against her for requesting accommodations, forced her into an unwarranted leave of absence, suffered emotional distress and failed to prevent discrimination, according to court documents.
Although specific dollar amounts are not specified, the suit seeks compensatory damages for Anderson for lost wages and emotional distress. It also asks the court to require COC to post written policies prohibiting discrimination and retaliation, require managers to undergo at least four hours of annual training, create a full-time position that will ensure compliance and provide proof of compliance.
The sides met March 20, court records show, but no settlement is indicated. A trial date has been set for February, a source not authorized to comment said.
Previously, former COC employee Donna Frayer sued the school for harassment, intimidation and retribution. She settled seven years ago.
Through an acquaintance, Anderson referred questions to her attorney, Alexandra Seldin, who didn’t return calls. COC’s attorney, Antoine Pitts, said, “I’ll have to have someone call you back” before hanging up on a reporter, but no one did.
Anderson started at COC in 2006 and was an administrative assistant at the Performing Arts Center starting in 2012, according to court documents. Through an acquaintance, she said she left in June 2018.
In mid-2013, she injured her arm and hand, later being diagnosed with an excessive-use injury similar to carpal tunnel syndrome. In September, the district says in court documents, Anderson’s workstation underwent an ergonomic evaluation that led to 11 adjustments. These included adjusting her keyboard, chair, mouse and monitor. The evaluator also recommended a footrest and headset, which the district provided.
A flare-up in May 2014 limited Anderson’s ability to use her right hand to type for just four hours a day, court documents show.
The district reduced her schedule, but not her workload, the court documents said. While the district approved hiring an assistant to help with Anderson’s workload, Anderson’s boss at the time, Evy Warshawski, would instruct the assistant to do unrelated work, which didn’t lessen Anderson’s workload (Warshawski, who now lives in Napa, was unable to be reached for comment).
According to court documents, Anderson “consistently” informed Warshawski that some work was not getting done and she needed help because her injury was not improving.
The district said in court documents that Anderson never made any complaint against Warshawski, “although she had the opportunity to do so.”
When the district did nothing, Anderson requested a transfer, but the human resources department denied her.
At the end of January 2015, then-HR Manager Yvette Barrios told Anderson that the district needed a full-time employee in that position, so Anderson was placed on leave. Court documents show Anderson “objected to and was distraught by this decision, expressing her strong desire to continue working and asked if they could … wait another few weeks to see if there was any change in her condition.” The district denied that request, too, the documents show, “nor did the district explore any alternative accommodations that would allow her to continue working.”
The documents say there were “numerous vacant positions available at the District that Ms. Anderson was qualified for,” but these are not specified.
Barrios, who said she left COC four years ago, declined comment out of professional courtesy, because she still works in HR, because the case is ongoing and because she might be subpoenaed later.
According to court documents, the district said that from May 7, 2014 to Feb. 2, 2015, Anderson’s condition did not improve. The sides agreed that the four-hour workday was not helping her heal. “Ms. Anderson never protested the mutually agreed upon accommodation to provide her 100% paid leave until initiating a complaint,” the district said.
Court documents also show the district said it was mutually agreed upon that Anderson would benefit from full medical leave to focus on healing.
Anderson went on leave around Feb. 2, 2015. Fourteen months later, court documents say, Anderson received a letter from the district saying her paid leave would run out May 25, 2016, and if she couldn’t resume her duties, she would, among other things, lose her benefits.
Anderson requested a two-month leave of absence, which was denied despite a policy that “permitted the District to grant up to (six) months of leave after an employee’s paid leave is exhausted,” the lawsuit said.
Anderson met with Vice President of Human Resources Diane Fiero to discuss the district’s denial.
“Ms. Anderson was told that her leave request was denied because there was no guarantee that she would be able to resume her position at the end of the leave and they needed an employee in the position as her replacement had retired,” the complaint says. “Again, the District refused to discuss alternative accommodations with Ms. Anderson, and in fact, Fiero told her that to modify her essential functions would constitute a ‘misuse of public funds,’ or words to that effect.”
Fiero did not return calls for comment. Court documents say the district denied the request per past district practices. Furthermore, the district was unable to replace Anderson with a full-time employee because the position was not vacant, as it was paying Anderson during her leave, causing the district undue hardship. The district instead used part-time employees.
With no accommodations and afraid of losing her job, Anderson returned to work on or about May 23, 2016, reporting to Lindsay Gambini. The district said she started accruing leave time again, which court documents said ended Feb. 28, 2018. She immediately noticed that Gambini’s boss, Carmen Dominguez, who had taken over for Warshawski, treated her coldly, and that other employees were not speaking to or looking at her.
“It was later discovered that Dominguez had specifically instructed employees not to talk to Ms. Anderson and berated them for doing so,” the court papers say. Furthermore, the suit alleges Dominguez changed Anderson’s hours to later in the day, making it difficult to deal with people on the east coast, which her job required.
The suit alleges Dominguez also required Anderson to train other employees near the end of the fiscal year, making it difficult for Anderson to meet certain deadlines; and perform other unnamed “unreasonable and unnecessary tasks that were never required of her in the past” such as taking weekly department-meeting minutes.
The court documents say neither Anderson nor Gambini understood why Anderson had to take minutes. Reached Monday, Gambini said. “It’s a typical task for a person in that position to do. I was new, so I didn’t know what her predecessor did, but her successor still does it.”
Anderson further alleges in the complaint that Dominguez found her initial minutes unacceptable because they weren’t detailed enough. Dominguez, now Cypress College’s vice president of instruction, referred comment to school spokesman Eric Harnish, who declined comment because the case is still pending.
Dominguez also said, “I still care very much about the Santa Clarita Community College District. They do great work for their employees, and they’re very sensitive to all our needs. That was my experience when I was there.”
Anderson went to Fiero to report Dominguez, but Fiero did nothing because Dominguez was not Anderson’s direct supervisor, court papers say.
The district said in court documents that Anderson never made any complaints against Dominguez. It later discussed the claims with Dominguez but found them “baseless” and “unsubstantiated.”
The district also contended it never received any complaints of discrimination, harassment or retaliation against Dominguez, and it accused Anderson’s lawyers of “an oppressive fishing expedition” for requesting the district identify any of the approximately 200 people who directly or indirectly reported to Dominguez.
After two months of this sort of treatment, the stress was getting to Anderson, so she took a leave of absence through her worker’s compensation insurance. The complaint says she suffered “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and humiliation, in an amount to be proven at trial.”
“At all relevant times, Ms. Anderson was able to perform the essential functions of her position with or without accommodation,” the complaint says. “At all relevant times, there existed reasonable accommodation that would have allowed Ms. Anderson to perform the essential functions of her position including, but not limited to, job restructuring, transfer to an alternative position, employing an aid or assistant, and/or providing assistive technology.”
The district contends in court documents that Anderson never requested to be transferred, nor was she well enough to return once she went on leave Feb. 2, 2015. The district also said it granted a paid administrative leave from March 1 to April 30, 2018, paid medical benefits and paid her for an additional two months of salary. It also granted her two months of unpaid leave.