Domestic Violence Victim Suing Catholic Diocese For Breach Of Contract
September 10, 2013 1:26 p.m.
Carie Charlesworth, former elementary school teacher at Holy Trinity School in El Cajon.
Rachael Langston, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center.
CAVANAUGH: A woman who suffering domestic violence leaves her husband, gets a divorce, and files a restraining order against her ex-husband is generally acknowledged to be a brave survivor. But at one El Cajon school, such a woman is also known as unemployed. Last week, Carie Charlesworth filed suit against holy Trinity Catholic school for wrongful termination. She was fired in April after her physically abusive ex-husband came to the school and an administrator said he was a threat to the children. The lawsuit arises at a time that lawmakers in California are trying to stop domestic violence victims from losing their jobs due to the actions of their abusive spouses. My guests, Carie Charlesworth is a former school teacher at holy Trinity. Welcome to the program.
CHARLESWORTH: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Rachael Langston, staff attorney for the legal aid society employment law center. Welcome to the show.
LANGSTON: Thanks so much for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And we invited a spokesman for the San Diego Roman Catholic diocese to join our discussion, and they did not respond to our request for an interview. Carie, you worked at holy Trinity for 14 years. Were they aware that your ex-husband had been abusive?
CHARLESWORTH: I worked for them for four year, I worked for the diocese of San Diego for 10 years.
CAVANAUGH: Got it.
CHARLESWORTH: They knew since 2009 that we had had issues, and what the issues were pertaining to.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about the incident when your ex-husband showed up at your school? What happened?
CHARLESWORTH: That Monday morning, I went into my principal because there were some issues over the weekend with him where I did have to call the sheriffs on him for violating the restraining order that I had. I went into the principal and informed her it was a very bad weekend with him. I'm on high alert because I know how he act, and I just told here that we need to be on the lookout for him. And then at lunchtime, the security guards did notice him in the back parking lot. He drove from the back to the front, never got out of his car, never threatened the school, the students at any point, did not have any weapons. Just was in the parking lot, which caused the school to go on what they referred to as a precautionary lockdown.
CAVANAUGH: Were the police called?
CHARLESWORTH: The police were called, and I guess it took them 17 minutes to appear at the school after the initial call.
CAVANAUGH: So a preliminary lockdown, but basically your husband drove around the parking lot and left.
CHARLESWORTH: Yes. He called the office a few time triesing to get a hold of me because I was not answering my cellphone. But other than that, that was it.
CAVANAUGH: Did you suspect that this incident might threaten your job?
CHARLESWORTH: I never thought it was threaten my job. They had been so supportive in the past and knew of my history with him, and of the domestic violence. And I never imagined that morning when I went in before school started that at the end of the day, that would be my last day.
CAVANAUGH: What happened? What did the officials say to you after that incident?
CHARLESWORTH: After the lockdown was over, I met with my principal and she said take the rest of the week off. At the end of the day, she sat at the crosswalk and was telling parents that I was on indefinite leave. The next day, a letter went home to the parents stating they was on indefinite leave, and here I'm thinking I was still just out for the week. And Thursday of that week, I met with the officials and they told me that my children and I would not be returning to the school for this school year.
CAVANAUGH: So all four of your children were going there and
CAVANAUGH: And they were all asked to leave?
CHARLESWORTH: They were told not to come back to the school, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Did you think that your ex-husband was a threat to the children at your school?
CHARLESWORTH: He never hurt our children. For me to think that he would hurt other people's children, no. I thought that he would come to the school looking for me, not that he would come into the school and do anything, but just the fact that him driving by the school, driving near the school is still a violation of his restraining orders.
CAVANAUGH: Sure. And what happened to him as a result of that? Was he charged with anything?
CHARLESWORTH: He was arrested on the day after for the two violations at the school. Then on Wednesday, he was rearrested by the sheriff's department due to events that had occurred previous to those. So he was in custody from January 30th until June 28th.
CAVANAUGH: And all that time you were not at holy Trinity because were asked to leave.
CHARLESWORTH: Yes. I was considered a threat and a liability. So me and my children were not allowed to return to the school year even though he was in custody.
CAVANAUGH: Did you reapply for your contract? Did you hope that the next semester things would settle down and you'd be rehired?
CHARLESWORTH: I was asked by the principal -- every year we have to do a "do you want to come back nextier" thing, and I told him, are yeah, my goal is to come back. And unfortunately, that's not what happened.
CAVANAUGH: Rachael, you work for the legal aid society employment law center. How common is it for victims of domestic violence to actually lose their jobs because of the violence that is threatened toward them?
LANGSTON: You wouldn't think that it would be common. It sounds kind of horrific for someone who's already going through a difficult period in their life to then lose their employment. But at the law center, we unfortunately hear stories like hers all too often. We have a hotline through our Project Survive Program where survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking can will call us regarding employment issues. Any problems that they're having. And we've heard from a number of employees who have come forward to their employer and told them about their situation, so they can take a leave of absence or just to alert the employer to the situation, and as a result of that, they were summarily terminated. So it's really a horrifying thing to think about happening, but it happens all too often.
CHARLESWORTH: And I notice that a 2011 study found that 40% of survivors of domestic violence in California they they've either been fired or fear being fired because of the domestic violence situation that they find themselves in. What kinds of protections are right now in place to protect domestic violence victims from being fired?
LANGSTON: Well, in California, there's a law in place, labor code 230 and 230.one this does provide some lev for for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to go to court, get a restraining order, obtain other relief, or if they work for a big enough employer, to take leave for other reasons. And they're not supposed to be, as far as getting counseling or other transition into other things related to the violence, and they're not supposed to be retaliated against. But what we hear when we contact employers is that they may be terminated their employee not because of the violence, but for the personal issues, quote unquote, associated with violence and the alert. So there's not a law in California that protects people from -- that they are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. So we're hopeful that there will be a law in place soon.
CAVANAUGH: Right. I'm going to ask you about that law in just a second. Isn't it a legitimate concern of an employer, especially when children are involved, to maintain the safest possible environment?
CHARLESWORTH: Absolutely. And since this whole thing has happened, I as a parent, as a mom, can see both perspectives. I see the side of the parents and the school, but I also see the side of the devastation that this has caused, not just myself but my children. And I don't think it's fair that we make decisions out of fear. There were no guidelines in place. This is not something that had ever been discussed before.
CAVANAUGH: Never discussed before.
CHARLESWORTH: I don't think so. When I asked in one of my meetings if this was the policy of the diocese, I was told anyone that's a threat. So I don't think this has been an issue that most employers, including my own knew how to handle. I think that they made decisions without the full disclosure of asking me, okay, he's in custody, what's happening now? Nobody came to me and said what happened with his sentencing. My children and I could have finished out the school year without any threat of violence to any staff, student, teacher, anybody because he was not physically able to even be near that campus. Now that he's on probation, he's got a GPS tracker. Wherever I work, that is going to be a very secure environment. It's going to be part of his exclusionary area. If they had waited to get all the facts and information instead of making a fear-ridden decision because of the parents' fear, the school's fear, I think the process could have been different, and the end result could have been -- at least we could have finished the school year of the then we could have dialogued and communicated to say what is the best for everybody.
CAVANAUGH: And Rachael, the legitimate concern of an employer to maintain a safe environment for everyone, especially if there are children concerned, how do you address that when it comes to weighing that against the rights of domestic violence victims who deserve to keep working if they haven't done anything wrong?
LANGSTON: Well, they're not mutually exclusive concerns. If you have a policy or a society in place where the practice is, the common knowledge is that if you tell your employer that you're dealing with domestic violence, and they can terminate you for that, and that's perfectly legal, and that's known, then people will stop coming forward and alerting their employers to potential safety threats. For instance in has Charlesworth's case, she alerted the school to the threat. They were able to take precautions to keep everyone safe F. We create an environment where people fear coming forward and fear providing their employer with knowledge that will allow for some safety provisions to be put into place, then we're creating less safe environments. So we don't want to punish the victim here for trying to participate in making the workplace safer by divulging this information and trying to work with your employer to make things safe.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, how would this new bill, this SB4 that's working its way through the legislator now, how would that serve to protect victims of domestic violence from losing their jobs?
LANGSTON: It does make it illegal to terminate or take another adverse employment action against someone because the employer knows that they are a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. So if someone comes forward and informs their employer, they could not terminate them or force them out on leave on that basis. The other really important component of the bill is that it provides for reasonable safety accommodations at the workplace. Workplace. So someone could come forward, explain they are dealing with this type of violence and request of their employer something that would make them feel safer, make the workplace safer, something as simple as a changed phone number sometimes. Or moving a desk so you don't sit at the front of the office if you're concerned. Or something like creating a safety plan on how to respond to various events related to the violence. So -- but also they're very simple, changing a phone number, changing some aspects of a shift or something like that that are really very basic, very easy, and they make sense, and they often go toward making the workplace a safer place for everyone, not just the person dealing with the violence.
CAVANAUGH: Would this state bill help you get your job back at all?
CHARLESWORTH: I don't think at this point it would help me get my job back. The way I came out with my came out with my story was to help victims in the future. I don't think getting my job back is in the cards for anybody at this point.
CAVANAUGH: And it's different because it is a private school, a Catholic school.
>> It is different. And due to ministerial exemption, even if this law is in place, that doesn't mean they're still not allowed to fire me.
CAVANAUGH: You announced that you are suing the diocese for wrongful termination. On what grounds then, if it's not based on this secular law, what law is it based on?
CHARLESWORTH: We're basically suing for breech of contract. There's about nine different claims we have against the diocese. The major focus is breech of contract, stating that in my contract they signed, I was upheld to certain standards set by the Catholic church, by their teachings, by their doctrine. And according to their contract, they have to follow not just California code laws but also their own cannon laws. So by treating me the way that they did, firing me, which means I don't have a right to employment, my children have a right to educate, respect and dignity, those things in their own doctrines and laws were violated, which means they violated their contract.
CAVANAUGH: How has losing your job, your career at holy Trinity, how has that affected you and your family?
CHARLESWORTH: It's devastated me! Sorry.
[ CRYING ]
CHARLESWORTH: This was who I was for 16 years. I was a teacher. This is the first year that I haven't had my own classroom
LANGSTON: Usually spend my summers looking through the back to school catalogs, planning for the next group of children. And this is the first summer that I don't get to do that. I've never not worked. Sometimes I even work two jobs to provide for my children and to give them the best that I possibly can. And now I'm put in a position where I basically can't go out and provide for them because I've been branded this unsafe person. And it's not just teaching, it's what if I go work at a bank? Am I still considered unsafe? If I go work at a restaurant, I'm still around the community. It's basically torn me to the core of what I thought my life was going to be.
CAVANAUGH: I really appreciate you coming in and sharing your story with us today. Thank you so much.
CHARLESWORTH: Thank you very much for having me.