The former director of a homeless services organization is suing the nonprofit, saying she was the victim of retaliation after expressing concerns over the safety of her staff and the homeless clients they serve.
Dee Torres-Hill, the wife of county Supervisor Adam Hill, filed a whistleblower lawsuit in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Tuesday against Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County. Torres-Hill is seeking punitive damages for wrongful termination, defamation, libel and infliction of emotional distress.
Claims made in civil complaints only represent one side and have yet to be proven in court.
Jim Famalette, chief operating officer for CAPSLO, said the organization has not yet been served with the suit and could not comment on legal or personnel matters.
Calls to Torres-Hill and Torres-Hill’s attorney, Christine Adams, were not returned Wednesday.
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According to the suit, the plaintiff has worked with the homeless since 1995. Torres-Hill began working with CAPSLO in 1999, eventually becoming director of homeless services.
CAPSLO oversees two local homeless shelters, the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter.
While she had been commended and rewarded for her good work in the past, Torres-Hill claims, the good working relationship changed when she began addressing concerns about safety.
According to the suit, the following occurred:
Beginning in October 2013, Torres-Hill documented and reported her concerns regarding safety to CEO Biz Steinberg. The following February, she asked two managers to begin including safety and security issues in their monthly reports. That same month, she reported her concerns regarding the safety and security of the two homeless shelters during a meeting. Torres-Hill told her bosses the safety concerns stemmed from short staffing.
Torres-Hill set up a meeting to discuss safety issues with her bosses in March.
“The meeting became ‘heated’ and plaintiff was reminded by defendants that plaintiff was employed by the agency and that ‘she should remember that and examine her loyalties,’ ” according to the suit.
On March 12, Steinberg allegedly told Torres-Hill that her department would be restructured for economic reasons. Torres-Hill was then offered a demotion from homeless services director to a manager position. Torres-Hill reminded Steinberg that money had been raised for an extra staffer at CAPSLO and that Steinberg had just embarked on the purchase of real estate for a new shelter.
Torres-Hill’s demotion was allegedly made known to partners in the nonprofit community, co-workers, the mayor and the City Council, among others, even before Torres-Hill had accepted the demotion.
After others inquired about the economic difficulties that caused the demotion, CAPSLO changed its story, the suit claims, and said Torres-Hill had failed to address funding deficits.
Later, the defendants said Torres-Hill actually increased the organization’s deficit at a time when she was asked to trim it by $100,000.
Grace McIntosh, deputy director of CAPSLO, then told co-workers not to talk to Torres-Hill and reported to media that Torres-Hill was on paid administrative leave, “intimating that (Torres-Hill) is under investigation with respect to the budget.”
The retaliation continued, the suit notes, “and it became nearly impossible to perform the work she loved with no support from her superiors.”
The suit says that Torres-Hill was “struggling daily and being subjected to the unjust and adverse actions of CAPSLO” and that her physician “removed (her) from the workplace on June 21, 2014, and issued an opinion that she should not return to that environment.”
In March, CAPSLO officials told The Tribune it had demoted three employees as part of a restructuring effort. The restructuring, they said, was prompted by an ongoing deficit at the two shelters.
At the time, Famalette told The Tribune the demotions were not tied to job performance. Attorney John Spatafore said the program had been free-falling financially.
“It is a shift underscoring the need to be accountable, both monetarily and program-wise,” he told The Tribune. “There has been a need to evaluate the programs for homeless services for years.”
Last year, Torres-Hill unsuccessfully sued private investigator Michael Brennler for defamation, saying he embarked on a “smear campaign” against her while helping CalCoast News investigate a series of stories about Torres-Hill.