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Jury trial demanded in Crossroads suits, filings allege terminations were retaliation

Four former employees of the Farmville-based Crossroads Community Services Board have filed civil suits against the agency, in addition to individually suing Crossroads Executive Director Dr. Susan Baker, Board Chairman Sidney Smyth and the agency’s member counties.

The suits, which seek punitive and actual damages from Baker and Smyth, were filed May 2 in Prince Edward Circuit Court by former employees Cynthia Morris, who served as coordinator of nursing services; Laura Baldwin, office manager; Jonathan Crawford, substance abuse coordinator and substance abuse director; and Marina Sinyard, director of long-term care.

Baker did not respond to telephone calls and emails, while Smyth, in response to an email, didn’t comment. A lawsuit represents just one side of a legal argument.

According to the suits, the four employees were terminated Jan. 20 by Baker as part of what she called a “‘reduction in force.’” The suits claim that the four were terminated in retaliation for complaints lodged against the agency.

Amelia, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward counties are members of the community services board, whose main office is on Bush River Drive east of Farmville.

The four are seeking actual damages of $300,000, punitive damages of $500,000 against Baker and Smyth individually, non-economic compensatory damages, back pay, monetary equivalent of the value of their future employment, litigation costs and reinstatement with full seniority status.

The four suits demand a jury trial.

Six people criticized and condemned the Crossroads Community Services Board administration during the board’s April meeting, saying that staff were fearfully silent, “struggling to maintain a positive morale,” acknowledging an atmosphere of “uncertainty and distrust,” and a lack of leadership and abuse of power.

Weeks ago, the board gave Baker a vote of confidence, renewing her contract that was set to expire in July.

According to the suits, after the four reported to the board on Oct. 27 concerning the application of state funds, Smyth and Baker “embarked on a plan to terminate senior managers who had reported to the board and those who had associated with, or were perceived as supporting, the reports critical of operations at Crossroads CSB … In the course of the effort to terminate Plaintiff’s employment, Defendants Baker and Smyth defamed Plaintiff.”

The four are seeking damages as a result of the “wrongful termination … contrary to both the common law and the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act ‘whistleblower’ protections.”

After Baker was appointed executive director in April 2015, “over time, senior staff began to experience difficulty obtaining answers to questions and needed input for Director Baker,” the four suits allege.

According to the suit filed by Baldwin, “Staff questioned Plaintiff regarding operational questions that they could not get answered by Director Baker. Despite numerous requests, questioned remained unanswered. Plaintiff also voiced concerns that went unanswered.”

According to the suit filed by Crawford, a senior manager, the matters affected the agency’s operations “and this began to jeopardize CSB operations and the CSB’s provision of services. Plaintiff pressed for responses from Defendant Baker on several issues, to which Director Baker took offense.”

Crawford voiced concerns “regarding the provision of services, inaccurate and inconsistent budgetary reporting, and regulatory compliance, particularly with respect to new Service Provider Intake procedures, for which Crossroads must certify compliance. Plaintiff was not the only senior staff member voicing such concerns. Defendant Baker set out to discredit and undermine those reporting concerns regarding regulatory violations — and to end their Crossroads employment.”

According to Sinyard’s and Crawford’s suits, the two learned last fall that Baker had used “CSB benefit recipients for her personal benefit as laborers on her farm.” The two were later “summoned” to Baker’s office, where she “demanded to know who made the report.”

According to Morris’ suit, when no efforts had been made to replace resigning staff psychiatrist Dr. Norman Holden, “Plaintiff had numerous conversations with her supervisor to express her concerns. Plaintiff learned that her supervisor had pressed the issue with Defendant Baker to no avail.”

According to her suit, Morris alerted Sinyard “to her concern over enforcement of Medicaid regulations for injectables, which was no longer a pharmacy benefit, but was a medical benefit, meaning the clinic would have to buy the medicine and bill the client upon injection … Dr. Baker refused to allow Plaintiff to implement this … Plaintiff understood from her supervisor that her supervisor was advancing Plaintiff’s concerns to Board members.”

According to Baldwin’s suit, she was not the only staff member to voice concerns about Open Access evaluations for substance abuse at the agency.

“Dr. Baker tried to block staff communication with the Board,” the suit alleges. “She refused to provide her senior staff copies of her CSB reports to the Crossroads Board and instructed some senior CSB staff that they could not attend Board meetings.”

According to Crawford’s suit, on Oct. 15, he received an email from Baker stating that the board would meet with senior staff on Oct. 27 to hear “‘concerns that you or your employees have about the recent allegations against the Executive Director.’”

At the meeting, Crawford, Sinyard and another senior staff member reported their concerns. “The October 27 report was not well received by incoming Board Chair Sid Smyth, who would be a signatory to the DBHDS Performance Contract,” according to Crawford’s suit.

The suit alleges that Smyth or other board members relayed information from the meeting to Baker, who told the directors of the board that she “‘needed to get rid of those two,’” referring to Crawford and Sinyard.

Suits allege that “the minutes of the October 27, 2015 Board meeting failed to record the Board’s invitation for such staff comments, the fact of adjournment to the executive session where such comments were heard, the reason for retiring into executive session, or those addressing the Board in executive session. Plaintiff asserts that minutes did not include these events as part of Defendants’ plan to conceal the fact of the report and/or the facts reported.”

Sinyard and Crawford allegedly contacted then Board Chairman Lloyd Banks regarding the status of their Oct. 27 report, to which he allegedly told them there had been “no formal outcome,” according to Morris’ suit.

On Jan. 15, after Smyth had assumed the role of board chair, he emailed Crawford, saying that Smyth did not have time or the desire to micromanage the agency. “‘If you find that you cannot work within these parameters then I suggest you and your cronies might want to look elsewhere for employment. On a personal note, I think that you need to know that I find insubordination to be despicable. It is immature and unprofessional. Frankly, if you were my subordinate and I found that you were making end runs behind my back to Board members, I would fire you on the spot … I suggest you either conform, communicate with HER, or move on.’”

Five days later, the four were terminated.

According to the suit, the “workforce reduction” had not been planned before the Oct. 27 board report and no study in anticipation of a workforce reduction had been conducted. “Employees were provided no notice of a planned reduction in-force.’”

According to Morris’ suit, the afternoon the four were terminated, Baker told a group of agency employees that the four “did not have ‘the vision that Crossroads has now’ — suggesting something other than a ‘reduction in force.’”

The Sinyard suit alleges that on Jan. 20, Emergency Services Director Cheryl Mullooly told Baker that “she had made a mistake in terminating Plaintiff and others as the terminated employees were good employees necessary to the successful operation of the agency. Defendant Baker responded that ‘“they have made my life unbearable for the past 3 months and it cannot continue … They are not as knowledgeable about things as you think they are and quite frankly, they are liars.’”

Her suit alleges that Baker sought to terminate Morris and Baldwin, along with Sinyard and Crawford, to make the removals “‘look fair.’”

A recent review of Crossroads by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services netted 40 recommendations to the agency. In a letter dated Feb. 18 from Dr. Jack Barber, the department’s interim commissioner, recommendations were listed for board operations, clinical programming, finances, communication, decision-making, clinical oversight and high-risk situations, accessing those with decision-making authority and human resources management.

According to the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), the firings violated a state regulation — failing to notify the DBHDS before implementing changes in the organization’s structure.