Former Safety Zone executive director Iris Kern is suing the agency and seven members of its board of directors, seeking among other measures, more than $100,000 in back pay plus unspecified compensation for emotional distress — and she wants her old job back.
St. Thomas-based attorney Karen Bentz filed a complaint on Kern’s behalf on Thursday, August 9, in the V.I. Superior Court against the Safety Zone and board members Joyce Horn, Delores Powell, Leslie Smith, Christine Barbich, Terri Lamb, Delrise Varlack and Marjorie Sprauve.
Kern, who headed the island’s only victims’ advocacy agency since its inception in 1994, was ousted early this year after an emergency motion by the board of directors, which, at the time, cited grant compliance problems as the reason for Kern’s termination.
No Help from Board
In the 10-page action for damages and declaratory relief Kern alleges that as the only full-time employee at The Safety Zone her duties increased and, despite repeated requests, she received no help from board members.
Kern blamed an unnamed office worker who The Safety Zone founder said lied about Federal Insurance Contributions Act payments and tax withholdings, according to the suit.
“The situation at The Safety Zone, which led directly to Plaintiff’s termination and the present tenuous existence of The Safety Zone, began to unravel in August 2006 when Plaintiff became aware that an office worker had lied to her when she reported having made FICA payments and tax withholdings for employees to the Internal Revenue Service,” according to the complaint.
“At the same time, Plaintiff also learned that this office worker had defrauded the Safety Zone in other ways, causing loss of money and time,” according to the suit. “Plaintiff fired the worker immediately.”
In the complaint Kern also alleges that hiring Shelley Williams as an office administrator was a “terrible mistake.”
Williams “was habitually tardy and absent without notice; she persisted in her refusal to provide her Social Security number, references and resume; [and] she misrepresented her position with The Safety Zone,” Kern alleges in the suit.
Williams, who is now co-director of the agency, maintains that her performance as office manager was not questioned until the board was made aware of the IRS trouble with FICA payments and tax withholdings.
“I worked for the agency for four months and my job performance was not questioned until after I delivered my fiscal report to the board,” said Williams, who declined to comment further on the suit.
Kern says she fired Williams on November 23, 2006, but that instead of leaving, Williams called a meeting of the board of directors and accused the executive director of participating in the tax and FICA fraud.
The board of directors voted to fire Kern, which she says was a violation of the agency’s by-laws, according to the complaint. She was officially dismissed from her position of executive director on January 10, 2007 and given only a half hour to remove her belongings and leave the building, the suit reads.
Kern further alleges in the complaint that the board of directors locked her out of the building and have not allowed her back in the office to retrieve her personal items.
In one of the most damning allegations in the complaint, Kern accuses board members of using The Safety Zone’s assets for personal gain.
In the complaint the former executive director seeks a declaration from the court that her termination was without authority and improper, reinstatement of her position, $170,511.50 in back pay damages plus interest, unspecified compensation for “consequential” damages, unspecified punitive damages; compensation for “severe” emotional distress, costs and attorney’s fees and such other relief as the Court may deem just and proper, according to the complaint.
A court date had not been scheduled as of press time.