Two former Newport-Mesa Unified officials are suing the school district and superintendent, alleging that he created a workplace culture of fear and intimidation that compelled them to leave their jobs after the board of education failed to investigate their claims.
Former district spokeswoman Laura Boss and former Asst. Supt. Ann Huntington filed the lawsuit naming Supt. Fred Navarro on Thursday in Orange County Superior Court.
Navarro was hired in 2012 and, according to Boss and Huntington's statements in court documents, they almost immediately began to have issues. Boss asserts she needed to seek therapy, and Huntington claims she had to take stress leave.
Boss, who was hired by Newport-Mesa in 1999, resigned in June. Huntington retired in July. Both claim they felt compelled to leave because of Navarro's management style.
The district, which dismissed the claims, responded to questions in a prepared statement:
"As this pending litigation, from two former employees, proceeds through the judicial system, we believe that the evidence and facts will clearly show that these allegations are unfounded."
Navarro could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit, and another terminated employee who is also suing, claim that many of the allegedly "hostile" interactions with the superintendent occurred during weekly executive cabinet meetings.
Members of the executive cabinet at the time included Huntington, Boss and John Caldecott, the district's director of human resources. The board fired Caldecott in January 2015, shortly after he filed a lawsuit against the district to compel officials to release internal emails and other documents related to his claim of a hostile work environment and retaliation, in part, for questioning salary reports to a pension fund.
The lawsuit alleges that Navarro excluded Boss and Huntington from cabinet discussions, failed to follow "normal protocols" when assigning projects in their divisions and undermined their authority, assigning tasks to their subordinates without consulting them.
"[They] were also denied important information, their advice and input was ignored, and they were put on the spot and embarrassed by Navarro in front of colleagues during meetings," the lawsuit states.
In October 2014, Boss, Huntington and Caldecott joined in a formal complaint to the school board against Navarro, where they claimed a toxic work environment. They claim in the lawsuit that the school board did not investigate their allegations.
After that, Boss and Huntington allege, the issues with Navarro became more severe.
In January 2015, Navarro allegedly waved his hands and shouted at Boss during a meeting in front of her peers. Caldecott reported the incident to the board, but no action was taken, court papers state.
Boss and Huntington claim in the lawsuit that Navarro intentionally inflicted emotional distress and that the board was negligent when it failed to conduct "an objective investigation into [their] complaints against Navarro by disinterested third parties."
Board member Vicki Snell declined to comment Friday about the board's involvement. Two other school trustees did not return calls seeking comment.
The filings state that in one of their first conversations, Navarro asked Boss whether she had any dirt on a colleague and if she would help him fire her.
"It wasn't just cabinet members that were asked," Boss wrote in July in a letter to members of the board. "Directors who are currently working under her were also called in and asked. None of us responded to his inquiries, but the damage was done. [The person] knew she was on his radar, and her paranoia ran rampant. Relationships that had been strong were ripped apart because the seeds of fear and intimidation were planted internally. And Fred ignited it, watched it play out, actually spoke about enjoying it and supported it."
In February 2013, Navarro told Boss that a school board member had accused her of accessing trustee emails. When Boss demanded an investigation into the allegation, Navarro didn't pursue one, according to the lawsuit.
Eventually, Navarro said he would launch an investigation and later said there was no merit to the allegation. During her last week at Newport-Mesa, Boss met with two IT administrators for dinner and was told they had never received a request for an investigation, documents state.
"So, I ask again, what was the purpose in creating this level of fear, intimidation and mistrust to me by board members perpetrated by the superintendent?" Boss wrote in her letter to the board.
Huntington, who began working in Newport-Mesa in 2008, is alleging that she was discriminated against because of her age and was forced to retire with two years left on her contract. She estimated loss of future earnings at more than $500,000, court documents state.
"Navarro's age bias toward Huntington became evident when another staff member told her [in 2013], 'You need to retire. Navarro needs you to retire. No one is going to remember you anyway, so do everyone a favor and retire right now,'" the lawsuit states.
"I was stunned, as you can imagine," Huntington wrote in an August letter to the board. "This sounds exactly like something Navarro would say, as I heard him plan several people's movement and exit strategy in meetings I had attended."
She said another employee asked her weekly, and sometimes daily, about her retirement plans after she returned from medical leave.
"Eventually I would start discussing them, even though I really wanted to keep working, as financially I was not ready, but I could see the writing on the wall," she wrote.
Huntington filed an administrative complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, receiving a "right to sue" letter in December.
Boss and Huntington are seeking economic and punitive damages against Navarro, general damages and attorney fees.
"The filing of the complaint was a difficult step, but one that we felt compelled to pursue," Boss and Huntington wrote in a statement to the Daily Pilot. "Since we have taken a legal step, we will let the matter be resolved in the court of law. The documents filed speak for themselves."
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