Former College of the Canyons employees aren’t the only ones who have brought lawsuits against the school. The Auto Tech Department chairman also did so.
Gary Sornborger filed suit June 3, 2015 against the district, President Dianne Van Hook, two deans and four others, alleging retaliation, negligent and intentional inflicting of emotional distress, assault, illegal hiring practices and conspiracy. The complaint was amended twice, on Feb. 17 and Aug. 22, 2016, with one fewer defendant named each time.
Sornborger settled in late 2018 but received no money. In effect, the sides agreed to walk away.
“My official comment is no comment,” Sornborger said. “They tried to knock me out twice. I want to teach.”
College spokesman Eric Harnish declined comment in an email, citing personnel matters. He also wrote, “This is a matter that was resolved in 2017 with no admission of liability by the Defendants and with Plaintiff dismissing his Court complaint.”
COC board member Edel Alonso, who was faculty president at the time, said she found Sornborger to be a good teacher who “didn’t receive the support he needed to be successful.”
COC board member Steve Zimmer, without asking what the Gazette was calling about, referred questions to board President Michael Berger, who didn’t return calls or texts beyond saying he had a client in the lobby and that he had been on vacation for 10 days.
According to the complaint, Sornborger’s troubles began in the summer of 2014 when he needed to prepare for recertification or reaccreditation by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation. His bosses, Kristin Houser and Jerry Buckley, wanted the work completed before the fall semester. Sornborger completed most of the work and submitted payment requests, but Buckley and Houser refused to approve payment for almost a year.
In June and July, Sornborger alleged, Houser signed his name to two college assistant employment forms implying Sornborger approved hiring three people, which he didn’t. He reported this to Vice President of Human Resources Diane Fiero, who in turn informed Houser.
In August, the court documents say that Houser retaliated by removing Sornborger as department chair, firing two employees Sornborger had hired and transferring another employee to the night shift, thereby making it impossible to help Sornborger with computer communications (the documents say Sornborger is disabled, and the employee was a reasonable accommodation for that). The documents say the terminations stemmed from complaints Houser received from then-Instructional Lab Technician Mark Veltre about a “hostile work environment” in the auto shop.
Veltre, who no longer works at the school, couldn’t be reached for comment. Houser, now a lecturer in the California State University, Northridge marketing department, declined comment.
“I don’t have the time and energy for that. I spent way too much time in my life dealing with all that crap,” Houser said. “It’s over and done with. I’d love to help, but I can’t. I’m not interested in getting involved in all of that stuff again.”
On Aug. 19, the Academic Senate convened an ad hoc committee to discuss Sornborger’s removal as department chair. Two days later, the committee found that Sornborger had not been given an official evaluation of non-performance, which was required to remove him from his chairmanship. It also recommended to Buckley that Auto Tech be removed from Houser’s division and placed within a different dean’s division, and the new dean, with Houser’s help, would formulate a new performance plan that Sornborger must abide by for the fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters.
According to the complaint, Houser refused to sign the committee’s findings and Buckley took no action until October when he moved Auto Tech to the Math, Science and Engineering Department and restored Sornborger’s chairmanship. He also threatened to strip Sornborger again if the NATEF accreditation wasn’t completed by Jan. 1, 2015, and forced him to take a seven-module department-chair training program that did not exist and had never been required before.
On Aug. 25, Sornborger requested Fiero launch an investigation into Houser’s retaliatory actions and take “prompt and corrective action.” Fiero did not return a call for comment.
Two days later, Sornborger alleged, Houser retaliated further by telling then-Assistant Director of Campus Safety Howard Blanchard to curtail an established arrangement in which Sornborger gave his office to Blanchard in exchange for additional Auto Tech student parking. This caused Sornborger to ask then-Academic Senate President Paul Wickline to set up a meeting between the two of them, and Wickline to discuss the situation (Wickline and Blanchard didn’t return phone calls; Alonso said Sornborger told her the meeting took place, but she doesn’t know what was resolved, if anything).
The complaint says that around Sept. 12, Sornborger spoke with Houser and believed “an understanding had been reached.” Instead, he alleged, that while Blanchard was on vacation, Houser ordered campus security officers to start ticketing Auto Tech students’ vehicles. After Sornborger questioned her, he alleged Houser escalated things by ordering vehicles be towed.
According to the complaint, a vehicle belonging to a student who wasn’t on campus got towed on Sept. 17. While Sornborger reported the incident to Buckley and Van Hook, Houser canceled classes for the day.
The student, unnamed in the complaint but later identified as Nick Vaughn, went to campus security to ask Blanchard why his car was towed. The lawsuit alleges campus security officer Tommy Thompson threatened and assaulted Vaughn, something Thompson denied.
“There was a verbal altercation between one of Gary’s students and (Blanchard),” Thompson said. “I heard the verbal altercation, and I came out in the office hallway to back Howard up. … The student started going off on Howard, and basically when I came down the hall, me and Howard were instructing the student he needs to leave the campus, and then when he was going and hopping in his truck, I told Howard, ‘You’re probably going to want me to write a report.’ And he said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’
“I walked out towards the student as he’s getting in his truck, and instead of me trying to write down his license plate and all that, I pulled out my phone camera and took a picture of him, the student and his truck that he was about to get into. Nick Vaughn started cursing me out.”
Thompson then asserted that Vaughn revved his engine and twice charged at Thompson, something Vaughn’s mother, Kelli, denied. She explained that Thompson had informed the students that class had been canceled and if they didn’t leave campus, they’d be arrested for trespassing. She added she had witnesses claiming Nick didn’t curse but screamed, “Excuse me?” repeatedly.
The lawsuit says Sornborger, “while protecting the student, was injured and required hospitalization.” Kelli Vaughn said her son is 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds; Sornborger is 5-foot-7, 165 pounds.
Nick then got into his car, a 1984 Ford Bronco, which was parked next to Sornborger’s car and backed out, still screaming, “Excuse me!” over and over.
Vaughn said Thompson then said, “Are you going to hit me?” and her son responded, “Well, you’d better move!” Vaughn said Thompson didn’t immediately move.
Nick then pulled next to the building, Vaughn said. Sornborger followed to give him paperwork to give to the sheriff’s department to file an addendum to his complaints of retaliation by the school. Then Nick left.
The next day, Vaughn was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, his mother said (Thompson said it was attempted assault). He eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to two years of summary probation, six months of anger management and 30 days of community service.
While Sornborger was hospitalized, the lawsuit says, Houser sent “a threatening and accusatory email falsely accusing (Sornborger) of organizing his students to protest the towing of the student’s vehicle and demanding to know how he planned ‘to make up the instruction time missed by the morning’s activities.’”
Veltre is accused of telling people that Sornborger was or had gone crazy, that he was suspended, that he encouraged students to interfere with the towing, and that he would not be teaching in the fall 2014 semester.
Sornborger was medically cleared to return to work Sept. 24 but was placed on administrative leave and forbidden to discuss the matter with anyone related to Canyons. He was reinstated in November but barred from teaching until the spring.
The lawsuit says Sornborger sustained “physical, emotional and mental damages as a result of his anxiety, loss of self-esteem, loss of self-confidence, embarrassment, humiliation, worry and mental distress.”