EDA staff member threatens former employee with lawsuit
Exeter District Ambulance clerk Linda Miller orders former paramedic to cease and desist defamatory statements
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
EXETER – Another Exeter District Ambulance employee has filed a lawsuit, but this time it’s not against the district itself but rather a former employee.
Linda Miller, a billing clerk of more than 12 years for the tax-funded ambulance district, has threatened to sue former paramedic supervisor Jennifer Rios for slander and libel, also known as defamation of character. Rios briefly mentioned Miller in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the district on Nov. 28 after seven years as a paramedic with the ambulance company. The lawsuit, filed by Maggie Melo of the Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield, explicitly named Miller’s husband, Tony Miller, who is a member of the public ambulance’s board of directors.
Dias Law Firm in Hanford, representing Ms. Miller, threatened to sue Rios if she did not “immediately cease and desist” all actions spreading false and defamatory remarks, including statements to the public or press and posting comments to social media sites.
Miller’s attorney Steven Alfieris wrote, “Ms. Miller is suffering from a very real emotional distress due to Ms. Rios’ unlawful actions” in his Dec. 21 letter to Rios’ attorney.
The letter goes on to state that Rios’ mention of Ms. Miller in her lawsuit alleged the clerk’s involvement in “unsavory and illegal practices” in an attempt to discredit his client. “Prior to your client’s false allegations against Ms. Miller, my client enjoyed a sterling reputation, both personally and professionally,” Alfieiris wrote.
In her wrongful termination claim, Rios stated that she had several conversations with then Board President Allen Sherer about alleged harassment by Tony Miller in February of last year. In a letter to Sherer, Rios claimed that Mr. Miller removed two boxes of what she claims to be personnel files. Rios said she and Savannah Lester witnessed Miller carry the boxes out of the district manager’s office between 9 p.m. and 10:18 p.m. on Jan. 26, 2017. She says that Miller allegedly had taken items from the personnel cabinet which was to remain locked at all times unless unlocked by the district manager.
She also stated that Ms. Miller was skilled at getting into the cabinet, implicating her in the alleged crime that can amount to a felony conviction.
“It is my belief that he took those documents home and Mrs. Miller was given free access to said information including personnel records. I believe with Mr. Millers history and stated intentions, there is no way to tell whether he removed or planted items inside of Mrs. Damico’s [former district manager] office in an attempt to further push his agenda and try to bring validity to his false statements and accusations of improprieties that have recently been stated at board meetings,” Rios wrote in a formal complaint to Sherer, which was published in a Dec. 7 article in the Valley Voice.
Alfieris states that these public statements are violations under defamation law, “At no time did my client take any files, including personnel files, from the EDA office.”
Rios’ lawsuit also alleged that Ms. Miller’s job was in “jeopardy” because she had helped organize a recall campaign against her husband, implying that her work was unsatisfactory and that she would be unable to retain her job without Mr. Miller on the board.
“I believe that Mr. Miller is targeting myself and several of my colleagues, and has stated such, due to Mrs. Miller attempting to have myself and my colleagues fired due to her job status being in jeopardy,” Rios wrote to Sherer, which was published in a Dec. 6 article in the Sun-Gazette.
Alfieris contends that Rios statement is false because she had no record of discipline during her 12 and a half years with the district. “This statement implies that Ms. Miller’s management has found inappropriate and illegal conduct on her part, enough to put Ms. Miller’s job in ‘jeopady’.”
However, the statement could also be interpreted another way as previous management had made several attempts to outsource Ms. Miller’s job.
Slander refers to untrue comments that are spoken in person or transmitted by radio or television while libel is the written, printed or posted counterpart to the law. The Dec. 21 letter was sent to both the Valley Voice and Foothills Sun-Gazette newspapers which have been covering the controversial ambulance company. Alfieris also stated that he believes Rios posted the material to social media sites and comments about the alleged actions continue to be talked about among coworkers and community members.
“To make matters worse, the false allegations and innuendo contained in your client’s complaint against the EDA have spread like wildfire throughout Exeter, my client’s hometown. As you know, Exeter is a small town of about 10,000 persons. Allegations of criminal wrongdoing – even when false and even when later redacted by local papers – hang in the air and continue to do damage to one’s reputation.”
Melo retorted that Rios’ comments are protected under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as anti-SLAPP provisions of California law. SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) lawsuits are those filed with the intent to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with legal costs.
“Your letter is essentially demanding that our client stop filing complaints with various government entities … alleging misconduct and malfeasance in office by government employees and/or elected officials,” Melo wrote in her response later that day. “She is not going to stop speaking out about the corrupt activities at the EDA, the elected officials who run the board, or the alleged mismanagement and malfeasance that is occurring to the detriment of the taxpayers.”
Mrs. Miller put herself in the public eye by addressing a letter to the editor and community of Exeter that was published on April 19, 2017 in the Sun-Gazette. The letter was in response to statements made by a member of the public, Samantha Weller, alleging a conflict of interest between a married couple serving as a board member and employee and that Miller was not qualified for the position at the district’s March 24, 2017 board meeting.
“She is married to an elected official, gone public on several things and these are all public affairs issues,” Melo said. “You don’t get to engage in public discourse and then hide behind defamation. Mrs. Miller is trying to be a public figure so let’s give her the benefits.”
Melo also noted that the letter from Dias Law Firm was sent directly to the press and “rehashed” all of the “scandalous” comments in a long-form letter format instead of a few paragraphs for a simple cease and desist.
“What is clear is that your client, and presumably the elected board of directors of the EDA, does not like the public scrutiny it is finally receiving,” Melo stated in her response to Alfieris’ letter.