Almanac

News - May 8, 2013

Fired gymnastics instructor says she's filed complaint

by Sandy Brundage

The public doesn't know the results or how much it cost, but it now knows that on April 29, Menlo Park got the final report of the investigator hired to look into allegations of harassment and a toxic workplace environment within the city's gymnastics program, and that this doesn't appear to be the end of the matter.

Michelle Sutton, the popular gymnastics instructor whose termination rests at the center of the uproar, isn't waiting around for the city to release the report. She said she filed a complaint this week with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

"I foolishly thought I would be reinstated, and so delayed filing the claim and seeking employment," Ms. Sutton said. She has now found a teaching position with Gold Star Gymnastics in Mountain View.

City Attorney Bill McClure confirmed Menlo Park got the investigator's final report on April 29, after receiving a preliminary draft about two weeks ago. He had not yet gotten the invoice, so did not know the cost of the investigation. Nikki Hall, the San Francisco-based attorney hired by the city to conduct the review, has not yet responded to the Almanac's inquiry about the bill.

The city attorney has said the report will not be disclosed to the public, and, according to Ms. Sutton, not to her either. The Almanac asked the DFEH for a copy of her complaint and whether the person making the allegations is entitled to see the investigator's report, but the agency hadn't responded yet.

Soon after the firing, City Manager Alex McIntyre initially said he had reviewed the circumstances of the instructor's firing to his satisfaction. However, he hadn't talked to instructors who alleged that a gymnastics program supervisor bullied and harassed staff, including Ms. Sutton.

The week before she was fired, Ms. Sutton asked the city's human resources department and union representatives about filing a harassment complaint against supervisor Karen Mihalek. On Feb. 12 she was fired and said she was told that a parent's complaint led to her termination. The complaint, emailed publicly to program management and to the City Council on Jan. 30, described the instructor as unprofessional in how she had asked the parent to step away during a child-only class.

The Almanac found no documentation of any reprimands or other performance issues in her personnel file. Legally, however, Menlo Park isn't required to document disciplinary actions for at-will employees such as Ms. Sutton, although many employers do as a safeguard.

Another instructor, Chris Ortez, quit in protest over her firing and later told the city manager and the council that Ms. Mihalek held "none-too-discreet contempt" for Ms. Sutton and reportedly had a history of complaints filed by at least two female staff members "who have been harassed, intimidated, and/or otherwise bullied by her."

The city has declined to comment on the allegations, citing employee confidentiality.

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