Discrimination complaint, divisions plague Ledyard ambulance

Ledyard — While its recent string of poor response times and missed calls has placed the town’s volunteer ambulance service in the spotlight, the group also has been dealing with the fallout from an internal legal dispute.

The dispute has contributed to resignations, cost at least $4,600 in legal fees and resulted in a $1,500 settlement, all stemming from a volunteer member’s complaint of discrimination, and disagreement surrounding whether to kick that member out.

After submitting a Freedom of Information request to the town, The Day received more than 40 pages of documentation related to a Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities discrimination complaint filed against the Ledyard Volunteer Emergency Squad, or LVES. Included was a copy of the CHRO complaint, as well as invoices for legal services related to the matter.

On Aug. 23, 2017, volunteer member Caron Wieringa filed the complaint against LVES, alleging that its leading officer at the time, director Joey Hundley, had discriminated against her based on her gender, her bipolar disorder and his perception that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wieringa also alleged that Nate Russell, assistant director at the time, failed to take action when alerted to Hundley’s treatment of her, according to the complaint.

Hundley and Russell declined to comment, citing sensitivity of the issues.

“I was being attacked and treated unfairly, and I had been going through it for two years and I said to myself, ‘I’ve had enough of this treatment, it’s not right, and I was going to do something about it not just for me but for everyone after me who may be put in the same situation,’” Wieringa said of filing the CHRO complaint.

She added that because she had signed a nondisclosure agreement in the settlement, there were certain things she couldn’t discuss.

In the complaint Wieringa, who has been a LVES member for four years, outlined what she alleged were several discriminatory and harassing actions committed by Hundley dating back to 2016, when he took over as training officer of LVES, an executive board position.

Wieringa alleged that Hundley had revoked her ambulance driving qualifications without just cause and reported to the town human resources representative that he believed Wieringa suffered from PTSD. She said he also instructed her to use the town’s Employee Assistance Program and ran a background check without her permission three years into her time with LVES.

Background check revelations

Although Wieringa’s background was checked and she had disclosed a fourth-degree larceny conviction that occurred in 2011 prior to joining LVES, the new background check, what it uncovered and how it was handled became a flashpoint.

On April 20, 2017, Hundley informed Wieringa that, due to information found in the new background check, she was suspended pending a review by the executive board of her violations of LVES Standards of Conduct Policy, according to the complaint. At the time, Hundley was not yet director, but LVES Director Rick Mumenthaler was away on vacation, leaving Nate Russell the acting head.

The background check revealed that in March 2017, Wieringa had been charged with sixth-degree larceny for shoplifting from a Walmart, to which she pleaded guilty. She maintains that she only left the store with unpurchased merchandise to retrieve a credit card from her car. She said she pleaded guilty only because the prosecutor, whom she was unable to identify, told her she didn’t have a choice.

According to the police report, Wieringa placed several store items into reusable shopping bags in her cart before exiting the store without paying. Before reaching her car, she was stopped by a Walmart employee, who asked her to come to the loss prevention office. Once there, the report states Wieringa asked to go to the bathroom, then refused to come out.

A police officer arrived, opened the bathroom door slightly and asked if Wieringa had any weapons, according to the report. Wieringa said she had a knife in her purse, and when the officer asked her to hand over her purse, she refused, stating the officer needed a warrant. The officer again told Wieringa to hand over the purse, at which point she began to scream and accuse the officer of touching her. The officer then opened the bathroom door so Wieringa could see he was accompanied by two Walmart employees, at which point she handed over the purse and exited the bathroom, according to the report.

Wieringa disputes that account.

Disagreement about the process

Shortly after her suspension, the LVES executive board gathered to discuss Wieringa, and at that time Hundley recommended she be kicked out, according to the complaint.

The executive officers then moved to vote, and that is when the disagreement became evident.

Three officers at the time, who still are LVES officers, said they are not allowed to discuss what was said in executive session. However, they could share why they have no issue working and responding to calls with Wieringa.

Those officers, Alan Bardfield, Stephanie Eaton and Margie Duval, described Wieringa as a very talented and dedicated EMT who is good under pressure. They also highlighted how they’ve never received a complaint from a patient regarding her. In fact, LVES has received multiple letters commending Wieringa’s service, including one received at LVES’ April meeting.

There were questions about the fairness of the process, as well.

But for other officers, the arrest was troubling, especially allegations in the police report, which was available at the meeting.

“The biggest part for me was the accusation she made about a police officer during the arrest because we rely on those people to keep us safe ... we consider fire, EMS, and police brothers and sisters and it rubbed me the wrong way ...” said Cassandra Ridenour, a former LVES member who was an officer at the time. A member for three years, she resigned from LVES on April 4, 2018.

Ridenour added that the report also damaged a sense of trust among members.

“What if we go into that person’s house, it’s only the two of us and something goes missing and my name is on the chart because I am part of the crew ... then it becomes my responsibility and I am open to whatever happens,” Ridenour said. “You should be able to trust your partner, and if you can’t ... That’s 100 percent your biggest thing in EMS, you need to be able to trust the people you’re with.”

Board decision and fallout

The executive board did not kick out Wieringa, instead extending her suspension for a few more weeks before reinstating her on a one-year probationary status, which restricted her eligibility to work and thus reduced her potential earnings, according to the complaint.

Although a volunteer organization, LVES compensates volunteer members for the number of calls responded to on a quarterly basis and annually for the total number of hours worked. They are paid through revenue generated from billing.

After that, Wieringa filed her complaint, while Hundley was elected director of LVES. And eventually word of Wieringa’s arrest became a poorly kept secret.

Wieringa said in an interview that many members refused to work with her, and the explanation she kept hearing was that members were worried they could lose their EMT licenses if Wieringa were to steal from a patient while on a call with them, she said.

Wieringa said they don’t know the whole story and that her record as a LVES member has been great.

Meanwhile, the CHRO complaint picked up steam and, on Jan. 16, 2018, the CHRO office notified involved parties that an initial assessment found the allegations "merit further investigation,” according to a copy of an email in the FOIA request. CHRO scheduled a mediation meeting for Feb. 14.

On March 7, Hundley resigned, as did Russell.

Wieringa settled her CHRO complaint for $1,500 a few days later, according to an invoice. She said there wasn’t really a case anymore after Hundley resigned.

In the following weeks things at LVES got worse, with a heated Town Council meeting at the end of March in which members described Hundley's leadership as a "dictatorship." However, the town also received comments from members defending Hundley.

Ultimately, the council directed the mayor to end the town's contract with LVES and put out a request for proposals exploring other ambulance service options.

LVES will continue to serve the town until July 1, but since Hundley and Russell's resignations, there have been six more resignations, and one other active volunteer was voted out.

Today there are six to 10 active members remaining at LVES, including Wieringa.

c.clark@theday.com

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