Former branch managers sue Sonoma County Library, alleging age, sex discrimination

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Three former Sonoma County Library branch managers have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the library system alleging that they were either demoted or forced to retire early due to an abusive workplace culture in the 14-branch system, one that their lawyers described as pervaded by “a culture of fear.”

The lawsuit, filed July 8 by three women who served as branch managers, names the Sonoma County Library and four library system supervisors who oversaw the branch managers.

In their complaint, Lisa Musgrove, Nancy Sampson and Nancy Kleban claim discrimination on the basis of age, sex and disability for what they called unwarranted demotions and an early retirement under duress, according to court filings. Kleban has since been removed as a plaintiff, leaving Sampson and Musgrove’s complaints active.

The duo is seeking compensation for lost wages, special and general damages, any applicable statutory penalties, punitive damages and attorney’s fees, as well as an injunction “to defer any such further illegal discriminatory conduct.”

The Sonoma County Library has not filed a response to the complaint. In a June 7 letter responding to a letter from the former branch managers’ lawyer, a Silicon Valley-based attorney for the library system declined to accede to the former branch managers’ demands, which included $1,000 in attorney’s fees.

In a statement provided Friday afternoon, Sonoma County Library spokesman Ray Holley said the library could not comment on personnel matters and would not comment on the lawsuit.

“Our library leaders take employee concerns seriously, and we are working diligently to conclude this matter so we can again devote our full attention to serving our communities,” Holley said.

The former managers’ claims center on friction with new division managers. That friction boiled over in May, when Musgrove and Sampson were demoted and Kleban retired.

Musgrove, 50, was the branch manager for the Sonoma Valley Regional Library from September 2012 to May 2019. On Feb. 1, the keys to the library’s money drawer went missing and Musgrove panicked, according to the lawsuit. After finding out a staff member had stored the keys in a new place, Musgrove admonished the staffer, using the expression “f---ing keys,” according to court records.

An employee filed a complaint, and Musgrove was demoted and transferred to the Rohnert Park-Cotati Library following the incident.

Sampson, 49, was the branch manager for the Guerneville, Forestville and Occidental branches for five years and has been with the library system for 13 years.

In January, after returning from a month of medical leave following a car crash, Sampson overlooked staff members’ requested vacation, leaving nobody to operate the Occidental Library. The branch was forced to close to the public on a Saturday in January.

Sampson was reprimanded via email and suspended for four days.

When she returned from suspension, Sampson decided to take medical leave for the next month, blaming the stress of work, according to the lawsuit.

“Nancy took medical leave for work-related stress from a lack of administrative support and all the hostile verbal comments and emails she was receiving,” according to the complaint.

Six days after returning to work, Sampson was demoted and moved to the Central Santa Rosa branch.

Attorney Ellyn Moscowitz, with Petaluma-based Patrick O’Brien Law, emphasized in a Friday afternoon phone interview that Sampson’s medical leave followed about a month of nitpicking by supervisors about things Sampson was doing wrong, which itself followed a month of medical leave for injuries Sampson sustained in a car crash.

“It was more than one incident,” she said. “They were harassing her every day after being hurt in a car accident.”

Moscowitz also touched on discrepancies between how she said the library system’s male branch managers are treated compared to her clients. The lawsuit calls out specific male branch managers for a variety of unprofessional conduct, including yelling and cursing, as well as generally not following library policies and procedures.

Moscowitz rested much of the blame on new division managers, Lana Adlawan and Sarah Vantrease, who are named in the lawsuit. Sonoma County Library Director Ann Hammond and Human Resources Manager Suzanne Silva are also named in the lawsuit.

“There’s a whole culture of fear right now based on the supervision of two of the people,” she said. “People are afraid to come forward.”

Vantrease and Adlawan, reached via email, declined to comment and directed questions to Holley, the library spokesman.

Kleban, 75, served as branch manager for the Rohnert Park-Cotati Regional Library from January 2009 to May 2019. Leading up to her retirement, according to the initial complaint, Kleban clashed with her supervisor. She felt she would have been demoted if she didn’t retire. In an amended complaint filed July 11, Kleban was no longer listed as a plaintiff in the case.

In the United States, employees earn protected status for age at 40, meaning all of Moscowitz’s clients qualify for age-related employment protection.

As the lawsuit progresses, there’s a parallel, union-backed grievance related to the two demotions. That grievance is based on a lack of “progressive discipline process,” meaning the two employees were demoted as a first step, instead of going through initial, less-severe discipline.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to reflect Nancy Kleban’s removal from the lawsuit.

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