A lawsuit against Yolo Hospice, alleging wrongful termination and retaliation, has once again heated up with the receipt of a letter that threatens legal and other action against Jody Norton, one of two co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Back in February of 2015, the Vanguard first reported that Jody Norton, former Yolo Hospice Director of Patient Care, who worked for the organization for 19 years and served for two months as acting executive director, was abruptly terminated on January 14, 2015.
Two weeks later, on January 30, 2015, Piper Berge, who worked as Information Technology Manager for Hospice, was abruptly terminated after she went to the Hospice Board to complain about the termination of Ms. Norton.
The two would file suit in July 2015 for wrongful and retaliatory terminations.
The Letter from “A Group for Decency and Justice”:
By all accounts the case was moving along very slowly, with nothing of great significance occurring, when Ms. Norton received a letter dated October 1, 2016, that, according to a declaration filed on October 18, 2016, “threatened to report me to various government and law enforcement agencies, amongst others, if I do not dismiss this lawsuit.”
The unsigned letter was purported to be authored by “A Group for Decency and Justice.”
The letter sent to Ms. Norton’s home address in Davis states, “We have been closely following your and Piper Berge’s lawsuit against Yolo Hospice.”
We believe your lawsuit is slanderous and contain numerous false allegations. The cadence of your allegations is mean spirited and indecent.
You have adversely affected a non·profit organization that has a stellar 37 year history of excellence and the reputation of dozens of individuals who have been and who are currently associated with it.
Ms. Norton, your standing in the Davis community has been relatively strong, supportive, and consistent. We understand that you are proud of your reputation and the wide-reaching network that you have established. We have noted that your use of The Davis Vanguard and I-Petitions to perpetuate your undignified agenda and selfishness and vindictiveness.
We are prepared to use all means available to us, including but not limited to social media, Yolo County District Attorney, Department of Drug Enforcement and Administration, the Inspector General of the United States Depru1ment of Health and Human Services, and California Nurses Association, to expose, during your employ at Yolo Hospice, your admitted culpability of forging Schedule II Controlled Substance prescriptions using Yolo Hospice physicians’ names, obtaining and then using these medications yourself, and then billing the costs of these medications to Medicare. This was further compounded by the fact that you did not complete your return-to-work agreement to complete drug rehabilitation at Azure Acres.
We implore you to cease and desist all legal action against Yolo Hospice, its current/former employees and all current/former board members. Please stop this. If this lawsuit continues past October 31, 2016, please be assured that we are prepared to distribute the lawfully acquired documentation of your illegal and immoral indiscretions that we have in our possession.
Defense Files a Motion to Amend Complaint
In the original complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Craig Dresang, hired as Executive Director in October of 2014, had “implemented marketing, personnel and volunteer reforms within Yolo Hospice, many of which potentially violated federal and/or California anti-enticement statutes, hospice regulations and/or HIPPA protections.”
In repeated efforts to protect Yolo Hospice and its clients, according to a press release, “Norton and Berge raised these issues with Dresang to no avail. Instead both were subjected to hostility, vitriol and retaliation for standing up to Dresang and not acting like ‘traditional’ female subordinates as Dresang expected.”
Ms. Norton alleges that she was wrongfully terminated by Yolo Hospice on January 14, 2015. Ms. Berge addressed the Yolo Hospice Board of Directors meeting on January 26, 2015, to complain about Jody Norton’s wrongful termination and about Craig Dresang’s mistreatment of other Yolo Hospice employees. Ms. Berge was then terminated by Mr. Dresang four days later, on January 30, 2015.
In their motion for an amended complaint, the attorney for the two women noted that “prior to this suit being filed, the Law Offices of Mary-Alice Coleman, P.C., received an anonymous phone call threat a day after its representation of Plaintiff was made known to attorneys for Yolo Hospice.”
That phone call, they allege, was traced to Joseph Drozd, Mr. Dresang’s domestic partner, leading to a temporary restraining order obtained against him.
In July of 2015, “just after this suit was filed, Plaintiff’s supervisor at her current employer was sent an anonymous fax message informing him that Plaintiff had filed suit against Yolo Hospice. The fax was transmitted from a FedEx Office store in West Sacramento without any language identifying the sender. Through Dresang’s deposition he confirmed that he created and transmitted the correspondence after initially denying he had any involvement in its creation and transmission to Plaintiff’s new employer.”
Mary-Alice Coleman, whose firm is representing Ms. Norton in her suit, told the Vanguard on Monday, “This is another example of what we believe is repeated, outrageous improper conduct by an official at a local high profile non-profit in Davis.”
Ms. Coleman stated she is unaware of what precipitated the October 1 message. She said, “No, we’re actually a little shocked.”
Mary-Alice Coleman did note, “Part of what this relates to is some discovery fights that we’re having.”
Attorney for Yolo Hospice Responds
Julianne Pinter, of the firm Ford & Harrison, is the lead attorney representing Yolo Hospice in this matter. In a phone conversation with the Vanguard, she said that, while she was aware of the letter, she had no idea who sent it.
Part of the dispute hinges around a motion to quash a subpoena by the plaintiffs. On February 19, 2016, the defendants served a subpoena on Azure Acres, a rehab and psychological center for people with substance abuse issues, among other things.
The defendants allege that Ms. Norton was required by Yolo Hospice “to go to Azure Acres as a result of her forging prescriptions under a Yolo Hospice doctor’s name and ordering and stealing narcotics while utilizing her hospice patient’s name/s as if they were going to be taken by such patient/s. She engaged in all of these illegal acts when she was a head nurse at Yolo Hospice.”
The Azure Acres matter is referenced in the letter. Matthew Roberts of the Mary Alice Coleman law firm, who is handling this matter, told the Vanguard that the judge granted their motion to quash “based on a lack of actual evidence.”
He told the Vanguard that Ms. Norton denies the allegations. He said the defendants “haven’t supported them with any evidence.”
In a tentative ruling issued on May 3, 2016, by Yolo Superior Court Judge Timothy Fall, he writes, “The deposition subpoena is overbroad as it seeks medical records that are not directly relevant to the litigation.”
Judge fall adds, “Defendants Yolo Hospice, Inc., Craig Dresang, Tom Frankel, and Emily Murdock fail to present evidence that establishes any treatment of drug or alcohol dependency or any admission to a rehabilitation facility by plaintiff, has been placed at issue in the litigation.”
Origin of the Letter Unknown
Allegations of threats are not new to this case.
Back in February of 2015, Ms. Coleman informed the Vanguard that her office had received two phone calls, one of which was threatening. The calls came in around 11:56 am and at 11:58 am.
In a statement she indicated that, when the first call came in and made a threat against her, her receptionist hung up on the caller, but the caller called back. The office manager then picked up the second call, but the caller hung up.
She said, “We contacted the Davis Police Department and reported the incident and the phone number of the caller. The police followed up, and have now informed me that the caller was the significant other of someone at Yolo Hospice.”
“When I asked questions of the officer, he confirmed that he spoke with the caller and that the caller is related to the Director of Yolo Hospice. The officer confirmed that he then called Craig Dresang and talked to him about the threatening phone call. Dresang claimed that he knew nothing about the call or the caller,” she added.
In addition to the called-in threats to the law firm, the Vanguard received some quasi-threatening posts as it was investigating the initial story.
At 11:32 am, the Vanguard had received the first of three posts from a new user, mm658, who wrote, “You are not truly journalists. You operate at the whim of your advertisers… especially attorneys. You are both a fraud and a disgrace to the art of journalism.” The user, as of 7:30 pm the same night, deleted his or her profile.
The timeline was uncanny. At 9:30 am, Yolo Hospice was called again for comment. At 11:32 am, mm658 posted the comment, clearly referencing our investigation and Ms. Coleman. At 11:52 am, we received the email from Mr. Dresang. And at 11:56 am, the Law Offices of Mary-Alice Coleman received the telephone threat.
Both sides deny knowledge of the sender of the October 1 letter. However, the letter contains detailed information that very few would know about. Ms. Pinter noted that the Azure Acres matter was a public document that anyone could obtain.
However, one small clue was that the letter was cc’d to both Mary-Alice Coleman and Jennifer Hiete of the Ford & Harrison law firm. Ms. Pinter told the Vanguard that Ms. Hiete is actually a contract attorney working for her in this case.
Her name does not appear on any of the filing documents. Matthew Roberts told the Vanguard that she appeared in Yolo County to argue a discovery motion, however, no one from the public was in attendance for that appearance.
The number of people who would know about both the Azure Acres matter and the name, Jennifer Hiete, would seem to be quite small.
In their motion to amend the complaint, the plaintiffs note that, on July 10, 2015, the Vanguard published an article on the lawsuit that had been filed.
Six days later, a copy of the article was faxed to Ms. Norton’s current supervisor at another hospice with writing over the article directing the fax to her current employer. “The fax did not have a cover sheet, nor did it have any identifying features as to the sender of the fax. However, the fax was stamped by the machine which faxed it, identifying it as being sent from a FedEx Office location in West Sacramento.”
In a deposition on November 12, 2015, Mr. Dresang was confronted with the document. He denied under oath of “seeing the document before.”
However, when the deposition was continued and resumed on March 10, 2016, “Confronted with the prospects of video evidence showing he was in fact the person who sent it, Dresang recanted prior sworn testimony and admitted to both creating and transmitting the document.”
“It is unfortunate that people in the community have decided to take the law into their own hands,” Julianne Pinter said in an email statement to the Vanguard. “Yolo Hospice shall however, continue to defend its longstanding reputation solely in the court system pursuant to judicial process, and believes that it will ultimately be vindicated through that process by a jury.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting