Former City Manager Vagnozzi Sues Upland For Discrimination

Former Upland City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi, whose promotion to the top spot at Upland City Hall was made with the support of three lame duck members of the city council in their last official act as officeholders after an angry electorate had banished them from office in November 2018, has sued the City of Upland over the way in which she claims she was treated in the months prior to her May 2019 firing.
A group of Upland citizens had appealed to Vagnozzi in the days and hours before the city council hired her on November 26, 2018 to decline the outgoing city council’s elevation of her to the city manager’s post and instead give what was then to be the incoming city council the option of either selecting her to serve in the city’s top administrative post or keep her as assistant city manager. Vagnozzi, saying she could not risk her future on the whim of three new council members she did not know, accepted the appointment as city manager, despite it being tainted by the consideration that three of those who chose her would not be in office upon her assumption of the position. As it would turn out, Vagnozzi’s show of distrust and what was interpreted as a lack of respect for four of the council members under whom she thereafter served as city manager doomed her to an abbreviated tenure in office.
What proved out to be Vagnozzi’s misplacement in the role of Upland City Manager played against a backdrop of action and political miscalculation on her part in the months before her promotion to city manager and further miscalculation and action taken in the months after she assumed the city manager role.
In March 2018, the city, led by then-City Manager Bill Manis, Vagnozzi as assistant city manager and Martin Thouvenell who was then the city’s management consultant and advised by then-City Attorney James Markman, quietly moved to sell off 4.631 acres of Memorial Park to San Antonio Hospital for use as as a parking structure, at first giving no clear reference to the property to be sold as parkland while providing the public with a mere 96 hours notice that the sale was to be voted on by the city council. Then-Mayor Debbie Stone and council members Gino Filippi and Carol Timm supported the sale. Councilman Sid Robinson abstained from the vote, not supporting the sale but taking no action to oppose it. Councilwoman Janice Elliott voted against making the 12 percent reduction to the city’s landmark park, the largest in the city.
A firestorm of controversy ensued, as the vast majority of Upland’s citizenry who had any opinion with regard to the parkland sale opposed it.
Robinson’s constituency in the city consisted in large measure of the parents of children participating in youth sports. Those who had been his political supporters were dismayed at Robinson’s unwillingness to stand up against the council majority and the city’s administration to oppose the sale of the parkland, which included a long-existing Little League  diamond. To remain in office, Robinson would need to vie in that year’s election, the first one in Upland history to be held by-district, and compete in the city’s Second District. Elliott had been elected at-large in 2016 and her term in office was set to expire in 2020. In an effort to ensure her incumbency beyond 2020, at which point she would be forced to leave the council because she was not eligible to run in any district other than the Second, she chose to run in the Second District race in 2018. Robinson, who was at a clear disadvantage for not having opposed the parkland sale, opted out of running,
Both Filippi and Timm were due to stand for reelection in 2016, the former in the newly-created Third District and the latter in the newly-created Fourth District. In the November election, both, unable to effectively defend their votes to sell off the parkland, were defeated. In September 2018, City Manager Manis, seeing the city large roiling with discontent toward him, Vagnozzi, Thouvenell, Stone, Filippi, Robinson, Timm and Markman over the sell off of the parkland, announced his resignation as city manager. Vagnozzi and Thouvenell were tapped to fill in for him temporarily.
After the November 2018 election, in which Elliott was victorious and Filippi and Timm were chased from office effective with the first council meeting in December 2018, the council took up the subject of the city’s managerial future. Thouvenell, who had served in the role of acting city manager from the middle of 2016 after the firing of former City Manager Rod Butler and then all of 2017 until Manis’s hiring that became effective on January 2, 2018, saw the e writing on the wall. He resigned as the city’s managerial consultant before his contract came to an end.
At the last council meeting in November 2018, with Timm across the continent in North Carolina visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday, the city council took up an item calling for designating Vagnozzi as city manager and conferring upon her a three-year contract. From North Carolina, Timm phoned in her endorsement of Vagnozzi. Robinson weighed in, saying he believed Vagnozzi to be the right person for the job. Filippi did the same. Mayor Stone, who was facing the prospect of losing her ruling coalition as soon as Robinson, Filippi and Timm exited the following month, noted that she had supported the hiring of Manis as city manager the previous year over Vagnozzi, who had also applied for the job at that time. Stone said she believed she had made a mistake, and that she now believed Vagnozzi deserved to be entrusted with the city manager’s authority. A significant number of residents weighed in against promoting Vagnozzi to city manager. Among those was Ricky Felix, who had been elected earlier that month to replace Filippi. Felix said he believed it would be best to allow the city council members that would need to work with a new city manager over the next two to four years be allowed to determine whether that city manager should be Vagnozzi or someone else. Undeterred, the council voted to make Vagnozzi city manager, with Elliott dissenting.
In January 2019, Bill Velto, then a member of the planning commission, was selected to serve out the two years remaining in Elliott’s term as an at-large member of the council elected in 2016. Thereafter, in February, March and April the city council began to evaluate Vagnozzi’s job performance during the closed sessions of its regularly-scheduled meetings. Closed sessions are portions of the meeting held outside the view or earshot of the public.
The city council also focused on Vagnozzi’s performance during meetings that took place outside the parameters of its normally-scheduled meetings held on the second and fourth Mondays of every month.
At a specially-called meeting on March 4, 2019, the council had a closed door meeting for the purpose of a “public employee performance evaluation” relating to the city manager. There was no action reported to the public after that meeting.
At a specially called meeting on March 17, 2019, the council had a closed door meeting for the purpose of a “public employee performance evaluation” relating to the city manager. There was no action reported to the public after that meeting.
At a specially called meeting on April 29, 2019, the council had a closed door meeting for the purpose of a “public employee performance evaluation” relating to the city manager. There was no action reported to the public after that meeting.
The constant monitoring of her performance and the disclosure that such a dialogue about her performance was taking place during both regularly scheduled and specially-called council meetings riled and concerned Vagnozzi. She retained the Woodland-Hills-based law firm of Goldberg & Gage, which specializes in representing public employees against public agencies.
While Goldberg & Gage had moved to the conclusion that Vagnozzi had been or was in the process of being terminated, that was not the case. She remained as city manager, and there was, as of that time, no clear consensus that she should be fired. She yet enjoyed the unequivocal support of Stone. Moreover, Velto believed it would be nonproductive to jettison Vagnozzi, and he remained committed to working with her. Felix, likewise was unwilling to fire Vagnozzi without some clear indication or evidence that she had been remiss in her duty. Elliott, who had an unpleasant experience during Thouvenell’s tenure as acting city manager in 2017 when she had been ostracized by Stone, Robinson, Filippi and Timm and ultimately censured, and Rudy Zuniga, who had replaced Timm, were somewhat less favorably inclined toward Vagnozzi, but still not entirely sold on cashiering her.
On May 2, 2019, Goldberg & Gage filed with the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing a discrimination complaint on Vagnozzi’s behalf. In a rapid turnaround, the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing on the same day sent to Vagnozzi, in care of the Goldberg & Gage firm, a document known as a notice of case closure and right to sue. That letter stated that because Vagnozzi, through Terry Goldberg, had requested an immediate right to sue, the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing would not itself pursue an investigation of the alleged discrimination but rather had cleared Vagnozzi to pursue a lawsuit against the city in a California court of competent jurisdiction. The letter stated that Vagnozzi had one year to file such a civil action from the date of the letter. Moreover, according to the letter, if Vagnozzi intended to pursue a case against the city for discrimination in federal court, she would need to seek a federal right to sue letter within 30 days of receiving the May 2 letter or within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory act, whichever came earlier.
On May 7, 2019 Upland City Clerk Keri Johnson was notified by a letter from the Goldberg & Gage firm dated May 6 that Vagnozzi had obtained a right to sue letter from the State of California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Vagnozzi’s already delicate situation escalated to the next level with the council’s discovery that Vagnozzi was on the brink of suing the city. If Vagnozzi had any hope of getting fully on track as city manager, she needed the trust of the city council. Putting herself in a circumstance where the council was flinching at the prospect of being sued made that nearly impossible. It only grew worse from there.
Vagnozzi subsequently acknowledged that Goldberg had “overstated” her beef with the city. Stated more directly, Goldberg outright misrepresented circumstances that made any sort of rapprochement between his client and the Upland City Council unachievable. In the document he filed on Vagnozzi’s behalf with the California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Goldberg maintained “on or about April 29, 2019,” the City of Upland, meaning some individuals employed by it, acting on its behalf or otherwise associated with it, “harassed” Vagnozzi.
Vagnozzi was the victim of intolerance vectored her way, Goldberg propounded, based on her “religious creed, dress and grooming practices, sex/gender, medical condition (cancer or genetic characteristic), age (40 and over), marital status,” and other issues associated with her being a “member of a protected class.”
Goldman suggested Vagnozzi was the object of the harassment and derision because of prejudice. He reiterated that Vagnozzi “was discriminated against because of complainant’s religious creed” which he said “includes dress and grooming practices, sex/gender, medical condition (cancer or genetic characteristic), age (40 and over), marital status, association with a member of a protected class and as a result of the discrimination was terminated, asked impermissible non-job-related questions, denied a work environment free of discrimination and/or retaliation, denied any employment benefit or privilege.”
Vagnozzi was also mistreated because she did not go along with the attitude she encountered, Goldberg said.
“Complainant experienced retaliation because complainant reported or resisted any form of discrimination or harassment and as a result was terminated, asked impermissible non-job-related questions, denied a work environment free of discrimination and/or retaliation, denied any employment benefit or privilege.”
Additionally, according to Goldberg, Vagnozzi “has suffered discrimination, retaliation, and harassment based on her protected characteristics/activities.”
In addition to Goldberg’s complaint erroneously asserting that Vagnozzi had been terminated, it also inaccurately stated that Vagnozzi resided in Woodland Hills. In fact, Vagnozzi was a resident of Rancho Cucamonga.
All five members of the council, including Mayor Stone, who had previously been firmly in Vagnozzi’s corner, were taken aback by Goldberg’s assertions. For them, Vagnozzi’s religious practices had never been an issue. Four, in fact, did not know what Vagnozzi’s religion was. Nor had they any feelings one way or another about her sexual orientation or in-depth knowledge of her personal life. Goldberg had implied that Vagnozzi was a lesbian. This hit a discordant note with the entirety of the council, none of whom had ever discussed or mentioned or even contemplated her sexuality. Felix in particular, a Mormon with three daughters, felt blindsided by Vagnozzi’s injection of the topic of her sexuality into the workplace. Unaware of her preferences and equally unaware of any discrimination that had been leveled against Vagnozzi as a result of that preference, Felix strongly resented her making an issue of her sexuality at all.
Word spread quickly through Upland that Vagnozzi was accusing the city council of discriminating against her because she was sexually active with other women.
At its regularly scheduled May 13 meeting, the city council was set again to take up the subject of the city manager’s performance. The agenda for that item differs from the three previous scheduled discussions in that it calls for a “performance evaluation and consideration of public employee dismissal” relating to the city manager. The previous council agendas pertaining to the evaluation of the city manager’s job performance had not mentioned termination. The change was a sign that the entire council, including Stone, was entertaining Vagnozzi’s dismissal.
At that point, Vagnozzi seemed to recognize she and her legal team had made a serious miscalculation. She attempted to walk back what Goldberg had done on her behalf. In the three days before the council meeting, she sought to minimize the significance of the filings Goldberg had made on her behalf, suggesting that she was only taking prudent legal precautions and was not necessarily going to sue the city. “I have a right to representation, and I have retained a lawyer to make sure I am represented,” she told the Sentinel.
She acknowledged there were some inaccuracies in the way in which Goldberg had characterized her claims against the city, and she indicated that there had been poor communication between her and Goldberg.
The inference that some had drawn that she was claiming she had been ostracized because of her sexual orientation, her manner of dress or her religion was inaccurate, she said. Still, she acknowledged, the documents Goldberg had lodged with the State of California suggested that was the case. “Perhaps he [Goldberg] confused me with another client,” Vagnozzi said. “I am not homosexual and do not actively have any sign of cancer though I do receive treatment from an oncologist. I attend a Catholic church. I have not been terminated at this time but have had numerous closed session ‘evaluations.’”
She said she had only recently retained Goldberg. “I am not sure where the responsibility for the miscommunication lies,” she said.
She acknowledged that there was a significant distinction between the evaluations of her performance the council had scheduled at the previously specially-called meetings and the then-upcoming May 13, 2019 regular meeting. “The previous closed sessions didn’t go beyond my performance review,” she said. The inclusion of the terminology “termination” in the agenda for the executive session discussion on Monday, May 13, 2019, she said, was an indication “They are giving themselves that option.”
Indeed, after the city council met in closed session on May 13, 2019, its members returned to the council dais in the council chamber, at which point Markman announced that Vagnozzi had been terminated on a 4-to-1 vote, with Mayor Stone in opposition. No cause was cited in making the termination, which was to be effective one month hence, on June 13, 2019. Nevertheless, Vagnozzi was relieved of her duties and capacity as city manager immediately.
Curiously, Goldberg and Gage waited more than two years, until August 4, 2021 to file an employment-related lawsuit on Vagnozzi’s behalf. The suit does not allege wrongful termination but instead cites discrimination, harassment, failure to accommodate, retaliation and failure to take corrective action.
Given the way in which Goldberg had botched the filing with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which led to Vagnozzi’s actual termination in 2019, Bradley Gage of Goldberg & Gage will be handling Vagnozzi’s case from here on out.
The lawsuit does not dwell on Vagnozzi’s sexuality, emphasizing rather that she was a woman, unmarried, had eclipsed the age of 40 and was a breast cancer survivor. The suit maintains she was subjected to harassment by other city employees and had to endure a hostile work environment.
According to the lawsuit, Vagnozzi, who was the assistant city manager, city clerk, director of administrative services, human resources manager and risk manager before she was promoted to city manager, was not treated as an equal within the city’s senior management division. She was originally hired in 2015 to serve as assistant city manager under then-City Manager Rod Butler. She served as acting city manager for five days after Butler was terminated in July 2016, but was thereafter replaced as acting city manager by Thouvenell. When Thouvenell departed as acting city manager on January 1, 2018, the city did not replace him with Vagnozzi but instead brought in Bill Manis, who had been the city manager of Rosemead, to serve as city manager. She was cut off from the flow of information and prevented from exercising the authority her managerial position normally entailed, the suit claims.
The case has been assigned to Judge John Tomberlin. The suit seeks unspecified amounts of economic compensation due to loss of future earnings, lost pension wages plus monetary compensation for emotional distress.
-Mark Gutglueck

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