Sexual harassment, cover-up alleged at San Bernardino nonprofit serving disabled persons
By Joe Nelson, The Sun
A former supervisor at a San Bernardino nonprofit that advocates for disabled persons has sued the organization, alleging her supervisor sexually harassed her on multiple occasions while the organization’s executive director refused to do anything about it.
In a lawsuit filed Aug. 5 in San Bernardino Superior Court against Rolling Start, Inc., Stacy Minwalla, who worked at the nonprofit only six months, alleges her supervisor, Ernesto Contreras, sexually harassed her on multiple occasions. When she complained to Executive Director Jan Vitro, Vitro immediately cut her off and told her Contreras was her “right hand man,” then threatened to demote Minwalla if she did not get along with Contreras.
Rolling Start is a state and federally funded independent living center, or ILC, serving physically and developmentally disabled persons in San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono counties. There are 28 ILCs statewide that offer core services to disabled persons under the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, according to the California Department of Rehabilitation.
Minwalla, who worked as an independent living specialist supervisor at Rolling Start from January until June 10, is also alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination, among other things. She claims Contreras constantly touched her inappropriately and made sexually suggestive comments to her, among them:
• On May 29, Contreras bumped into Minwalla from behind and complained he “didn’t get front action.”
• Contreras told Minwalla he broke the zipper on his pants and asked her for a safety pin. When Contreras returned from the restroom, he told Minwalla it “was not a good day not to wear underwear.”
• In Minwalla’s office, Contreras sat at a nearby desk, rubbed his genitals and told her, “You’re going to get a show today.” He then exposed himself to her while continuing to rub his privates.
Minwalla showed Contreras pictures of her family to show she was married, but Contreras kept rubbing himself, so Minwalla left her office, the lawsuit alleges.
It is unclear what Contreras’s job title is. Minwalla’s attorney, Timothy J. Gonzales, said he did not know.
Rolling Start board chairman John Anaya Sr., during a recent telephone conversation, refused to provide that information. He deferred comment to Vitro, who did not return multiple telephone calls seeking comment.
On May 10, Minwalla filed a complaint with the state Department of Fair Housing and Labor, laying out the allegations against Contreras. The same day, Vitro began a “campaign of retaliation” against Minwalla by overwhelming her with extra work and overscrutinizing her work product, the lawsuit alleges.
Meanwhile, the sexual harassment against Minwalla continued, the lawsuit alleges.
Minwalla, according to the lawsuit, requested a demotion to independent living specialist at the Hesperia office, where she worked. Vitro refused, instead offering Minwalla an administrative associate position at the San Bernardino office, which would mean she would have even more direct contact with Contreras.
Gonzales said all the alleged sexual harassment occurred at Rolling Start’s Hesperia office, where Contreras worked periodically. He said Contreras spent most of his time working at the San Bernardino office.
On June 6, Minwalla was diagnosed with acute stress disorder. Her healthcare provider authorized a 5-day stress leave from work. On June 13, Minwalla’s doctor approved an additional two weeks off, the lawsuit states.
While on leave, Minwalla, according to the lawsuit, received an e-mail from Vitro demanding she immediately say whether she was taking the administrative associate job. Minwalla responded, requesting clarification on the job offer and reiterating to Vitro her concerns about Contreras and the “extreme amount of stress” she was under “due to a hostile, stressful work environment.”
She informed Vitro she would remain on medical leave through June 26, and sent Vitro and Contreras a doctor’s note authorizing the additional time off via e-mail on June 13, according to the lawsuit.
On or about June 15, while Minwalla was still on medical leave, an unnamed Rolling Start board member contacted Minwalla and informed her she had been fired “due to the false and/or pretextual reason of plaintiff not responding to Vitro’s job offer by June 10,” the lawsuit states.
Minwalla is demanding unspecified general and punitive damages, plus attorney’s fees.
Gonzales said he is in talks with three other former Rolling Start employees who are considering litigation.
“One of the mission statements and goals of Rolling Start is to empower people, and what they did to Stacy undermines that goal,” said Gonzales. “I think what happened to her and what’s happening to other people undermines the organization’s ability to meet the needs of the disabled members of San Bernardino. This is about making sure this doesn’t happen to other people.”
A trial setting conference is scheduled for Feb. 15 in San Bernardino Superior Court.