Solvang’s former city clerk has filed a lawsuit alleging that her whistleblower complaints about the current city manager and former city attorney led to retaliation, harassment and, ultimately, her termination.
Lisa Martin, who had served as city clerk since her August 2015 promotion, took medical leave because of the stress in 2019 and was placed on administrative leave when she attempted to return to her job, according to the complaint filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court by her attorney, David Secrest.
On March 27, 2020, Martin was among other city employees laid off.
“The city’s claims that Plaintiff’s termination was due to COVID-19, and that Plaintiff’s position, City Clerk, was ‘non-essential,’ were pretextual and false, and a deliberate concoction of plausible legal rationale designed to punish Plaintiff, and to retaliate against her, for her gender and protected activity,” the lawsuit stated.
Civil complaints represent only the plaintiff’s side of the story with defendants expected to file a response within weeks.
The accusations focus on now City Manager Xenia Bradford and Chip Wullbrandt, formerly the contract city attorney and a partner at the Santa Barbara-based firm of Price, Postel & Parma.
Wullbrandt “blatantly disregarded” Solvang Municipal Code deadlines for submitting items for meeting agendas, yelling at Martin over the issue and later seeming to apologize by giving her a bottle of chardonnay, the complaint stated.
Another time, Martin published the agenda at the direction of then-City Manager David Gassaway, who was asked to resign and paid severage by the same council that hired him months earlier.
Martin’s posting of the agenda led to an interaction with Wullbrandt being “intimidating and demanding” and insisting that Martin “take direction from me,” according to the civil complaint.
In another interaction, Wullbrandt “aggressively and loudly yelled” at Martin. She asked him to stop yelling, the city attorney “stepped forward aggressively, pointed his finger at Plaintiff, and blocked her ability to move away,” leaving Martin feeling threatened.
After Wullbrandt’s “verbal abuse and physically threatening gestures,” Martin left work and was placed on medical leave by her doctor.
Bradford was told of the incident, but Martin claimed the city manager “made no effort to ask Plaintiff what happened, and failed to make any written report of the incident.”
In October 2019, Martin submitted a formal written complaint of harassment against Wullbrandt and Bradford.
When Martin made plans to return from medical leave, Bradford told the city clerk she would be placed on administrative leave.
While she participated in an interview with an outside investigator, Martin said city representatives never informed her of the results of the investigation.
“The City’s actions in placing Plaintiff on an involuntary leave of absence, failing to properly investigate her legitimate complaints of harassment and retaliation, and violations of the City Code and Brown Act, and firing Plaintiff on the fabricated and false basis of her position being ‘non-essential’ were, taken together or individually, ‘adverse employment actions’ as defined by the California Labor and Government Codes, and Regulations,” the lawsuit stated. “As a continuous course of conduct, these actions constituted a systematic pattern and practice of illegal retaliation.”
The lawsuit noted that the Solvang Municipal Code and California Government Code require a city clerk position, and the new city manager contract also named Bradford as city clerk.
Solvang hired a temporary city clerk for $36,000 a month, or three times the amount of Martin’s salary for the same time.
The lawsuit accused Bradford, before being appointed city manager, of chastising Martin in public and her demeanor worsening after being named to the top job.
Bradford also “consistently questioned everything” Martin did with the micromanaging deemed “unnerving to Plaintiff, and caused significant distress.”
Bradford and Wullbrandt are not identified as defendants in the lawsuit against the City of Solvang, but the complaint includes unnamed defendants identified as Does 1 to 20.
The lawsuit cited seven causes of action, including retaliation in violation of the California Labor Code, discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, hostile work environment violation of rights under the California Family Rights Act, failure to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation in violation of FEHA, intentional infliction of emotional distress and declaratory judgment.
Martin is seeking more than $25,000 in compensatory and general damages, including back pay, future pay, damages for emotional distress and other expenses, penalties, interest on unpaid wages, attorney fees and lawsuit costs.
The civil lawsuit’s filing came after Martin exhausted out-of-court efforts to resolve the matters, the complaint said.
A case management conference has been set for July 12 before Judge James Rigali.