The former longtime director of domestic violence services for Family of Woodstock has filed a lawsuit that claims she was illegally fired after she called attention to her boss’ failure to address security concerns in the wake of an incident at the Washbourne House domestic violence shelter.
The allegations are contained in the suit filed last month by Kathy Welby-Moretti, former head of domestic violence services for Family of Woodstock. Welby-Moretti, herself a survivor of domestic violence, began working for the agency as an administrative assistant in 1986. From 1995 until earlier this summer, she had run the agency’s domestic violence program, which includes counseling for both victims and batterers and case management services.
A key element to the program is the Washbourne House, a shelter that provides secure temporary housing for women and children fleeing abusive partners.
According to the lawsuit, Welby-Moretti’s personal and professional lives converged on Feb. 20, when her ex-husband showed up at the shelter. Welby-Moretti said she divorced Robert A. Musillo in 1985; he remains under a full stay-away order of protection. He gained admittance to the shelter, she said, because a security camera at the front door had such low resolution that shelter staffers were unable to identify him. According to the lawsuit, Musillo demanded to see his ex-wife, threatened shelter staff and refused to leave. Police were called and he was arrested.
In the days and weeks after the incident, the lawsuit claims that Welby-Moretti and other shelter staff met with representatives of the county District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health and Mental Health to discuss security at the shelter. On April 6, the Sheriff’s Office issued a formal security evaluation which called for a number of upgrades, including a better system for identifying visitors at the front door, better lighting and the complete replacement of some doors. By that time, the lawsuit claims, Welby-Moretti had already reached out to Family Executive Director Michael Berg to tell him that there were serious security issues at the shelter and that she and other staffers did not feel safe there.
Later in April, the lawsuit said, Berg had a security company install alarms on two doors and provided two panic alarms for staff. According to the lawsuit, when Welby-Moretti told Berg that two panic buttons were not enough, he upbraided her and blamed her for the security breach.
The lawsuit claims the issue came to a head at a May 1 follow-up meeting at County Executive Mike Hein’s office. Ulster Social Services Commissioner Mike Iapoce and representatives from the DA’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and one of Hein’s deputies sat with Berg and Welby-Moretti to discuss security at the shelter. The lawsuit claims that when Berg told the group that the security concerns laid out in the April evaluation had been addressed, Welby-Moretti contradicted him, saying that some of the issues — especially the need for more panic buttons — remained unresolved. Berg allegedly replied that he “was not going to turn the [shelter] into a prison.”
A few days later, the lawsuit claims, Welby-Moretti was relieved of her duties and assigned to a recently created and poorly defined job. Her duties, she claimed, were handed to a younger, less-qualified staff member. Berg is alleged to have told Welby-Moretti that she had embarrassed him by going to county officials with her security concerns. On July 8, Moretti was terminated from her employment with Family.
Welby-Moretti’s attorney, Joseph Ranni, said his client’s termination violated a number of state laws, including those covering age discrimination and protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation. Ranni said Berg’s conduct also violated a section of state law that forbids discrimination based on status as a victim of domestic violence.
“We can’t allow victims of domestic violence to be fired because people are afraid of their ex showing up,” said Ranni. “We understand the concerns, but the solution is not firing the messenger, it’s addressing security issues.”
In addition to retaliation and discrimination, the lawsuit also alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
Berg said that he could not comment on pending litigation. But he said, he believed he and Family of Woodstock would prevail in the court fight. “We believe we have done nothing wrong,” said Berg. “We will aggressively contest this lawsuit and I believe we will win.”