Defendants respond to suits
Published 12:11 pm Thursday, August 11, 2016
The chairman of the Crossroads Community Services Board, the agency itself and Crossroads’ executive director are denying all claims filed against them by four former employees and asking the claims be dismissed.
New court documents — recently filed by attorneys representing Crossroad Community Services Board Chairman Sidney Smyth, Crossroads Executive Director Dr. Susan Baker and the board itself — serve as responses to claims made more than two months ago by Crossroads Coordinator of Nursing Services Cynthia Morris, Office Manager Laura Baldwin, Substance Abuse Coordinator and Substance Abuse Director Jonathan Crawford and Director of Long-Term Care Marina Sinyard.
The former employees’ lawsuits, filed in Prince Edward Circuit Court, claim they were terminated by Baker on Jan. 20 as part of what she called a “reduction in force” in retaliation for complaints lodged against the agency.
The four employees 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 also demand a jury trial.
In the new responses, Smyth filed a motion craving oyer, a demurrer and a plea in bar. Baker filed a demurrer in each suit; Crossroads filed demurrers. According to the Code of Virginia, a demurrer contends a pleading does not state a cause of action or claims the pleading fails to state facts upon which the relief demanded can be granted. A motion craving oyer is a request to a party to place documents mentioned in pleadings into the court record; a plea in bar seeks to bar or cease action by a defendant.
In his oyer, Smyth asked the court to order the employees to “produce emails … and incorporate them as exhibits” to the complaint, referring to an email between Smyth and Crawford, in which Smyth allegedly says he did not have time or the desire to micromanage the agency.
According to the lawsuits, Smyth allegedly told Crawford, “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.”
In his response to Baldwin’s suit, Smyth argued, “Because the Plaintiff failed to attach either Smyth’s or Crawford’s email to which Smyth was responding … the court and Smyth are unable to access the defamation claim.”
In his demurrer to Sinyard’s suit, Smyth asked all claims against him be dismissed, claiming the email “allegedly directed towards the Plaintiff … is not actionable because it is not reasonably understood as stating or implying actual facts; it is Smyth’s opinion and is not capable of being proven true or false and is not defamatory.” In his response, Smyth also said Sinyard failed to plead the exact words by which Smyth “‘endorsed and adopted’” Baker’s statements.
Smyth stated several other reasons why the claims should be dismissed, including there being no evidence of his participating in Sinyard’s termination and his being sued in an individual capacity.
In his plea in bar to Morris’ suit, Smyth requested the claims for wrongful termination be “barred because (he) was neither her employer nor in a position to fire her … Because Smyth did not participate in the allegedly wrongful firing and had no authority to do so, the Plaintiff is barred from prosecuting her claims for wrongful termination.”
In her demurrer to the Crawford suit, Baker’s attorney wrote “the Complaint is not sufficient in law and does not state facts upon which the relief requested can be granted, and Dr. Baker respectfully submits … this action dismissed with prejudice against her.”
In the filing, Baker said her “allegedly defamatory statements are not actionable statements,” referring to Crawford’s suit alleging Baker said he and a co-worker were “‘dangerous to Crossroads’ and ‘needed to be removed;’ were ‘liars,’ and that they ‘are not as knowledgeable about things as you think they are[.]”
In her demurrer, Baker said, “The alleged defamatory statements are protected by Dr. Baker’s rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Virginia Constitution … and are non-actionable opinions and rhetorical hyperbole.”
Baker went on to say the statements are relative in nature and express her own, subjective, personal perspective, adding the statements were “not published to a third party, as construed for purposes of a defamation claim. … Plaintiff’s claim that his discharge was allegedly in violation of the public policy underlying the Community Services Boards statute does not fall within the narrow exception to the employment at-will doctrine.”
Crossroads’ demurrers, which address the only claim against the agency itself — an allegation of retaliation in violation of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act (VFATA) — argues the complaint “fails to allege any violation of VFATA, and none of the alleged actions or inactions of Crossroads CSB constitute violations of VFATA.”
The demurrer claimed allegations of inaccurate or fraudulent accounting records or statements are not sufficient to sustain a violation of the act: “Rather, VAFTA requires an allegation of a fraudulent ‘claim’ which is a ‘request or demand’ for money…. These facts allege at most disagreement with management choices and ‘inaccurate’ documentation that allegedly put Crossroads CSB at risk of penalties under its contract, and fall far short of presenting ‘a fraudulent claim for payment or approval’ or making or using a ‘false record’ material to a ‘fraudulent claim.’”
In their lawsuits, the four former employees claimed 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,” after the employees went to the board on Oct. 27 concerning the use of state funds. “In the course of the effort to terminate Plaintiff’s employment, Defendants Baker and Smyth defamed Plaintiff.”
Morris, Baldwin, Crawford and Sinyard 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.”
The four suits alleged that, “over time, senior staff began to experience difficulty obtaining answers to questions” following Baker’s appointment as executive director in April 2015, “and needed input for Director Baker.”
Smyth, Baker and the Crossroads’ responses contain four separate letters from Baker to Crawford, Sinyard, Baldwin and Morris, stating “…I have determined the needs of the agency that will allow us to move forward. Toward this end, I have determined that our current management configuration is not the right fit to accomplish the agency goals. I regret to inform you that, effective today, your position at Crossroads is being eliminated. As this action is a Reduction in Force, there is no grievance appeal.”
According to his lawsuit, 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 the former employees’ suits, the “workforce reduction” had not been planned before they went to the board Oct. 27 and no study in anticipation of a workforce reduction had been conducted. “Employees were provided no notice of a planned reduction-in-force.’”
Sinyard’s suit alleges Baker sought to terminate Morris and Baldwin, along with Sinyard and Crawford, to make the removals “‘look fair.’”
Member counties of Crossroads — which have been named in the suits — have asked for dismissal from the lawsuits. Attorneys representing Amelia, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Lunenburg, Nottoway and Prince Edward counties recently filed “pleas in bar and demurrers” in Prince Edward County Circuit Court, asking the court to dismiss the complaints “and grant them such other and further relief as may be appropriate.”