Five former employees of the Utah Pride Center who were terminated last year early in the COVID-19 pandemic are taking legal action against the Center, alleging illegal activity from leadership dating back as far as 2019.
This is the first time these accusations have been brought forward in court. Michael Bryant, Liz Pitts, Hillary McDaniel, bek Birkett, and Brim Wachendorf filed a complaint with the 3rd Judicial District Court of the State of Utah.
The complaint states that the five were employed and receiving positive feedback regarding the quality of their work prior to being terminated.
They say that from February 2019, Moolman engaged in hiring decisions that were made without job postings or any transparent interview or hiring process. No people of color or transgender persons were given an opportunity to apply, and the romantic partner of the Center’s cis-gender operations director was hired for an important position with no input from existing staff.
Pitts and McDaniel say they approached Moolman about the hiring practices in March, 2019, and Moolman denied Pitts a requested pay raise eight months later, telling her she “wasn’t a team player” because of the complaint.
Pitts told a newly hired human resources company about Moolman’s comment about his reasons for not giving her a raise and was told such a motive would be considered retaliation.
In December 2019, Pitts said every manager at the Pride Center received a merit raise except her.
At that time, according to the complaint, the Center had no performance appraisal process or system in place, and no such appraisals had occurred.
The complainants also said Moolman was hiring cis-gender white males to do contract work while reducing the hours of transgender and non-binary employees.
Pitts and McDaniel said that their repeated attempts to talk to the Center’s executive board or the board of directors were denied.
On April 30, ten employees of the Center were terminated as the Center was forced to close and cancel the Utah Pride Festival.
The Center, however, had received a $166,100 Payroll Protection Program loan. At the time, Center leaders said the loans were so confusing that they determined to send the money back so as not to incur debt. That loan has since been forgiven by the Small Business Administration.
On June 10, Bryant, McDaniel, and Birkett were terminated because of, the Pride Center stated, lack of funds.
The Center applied for and received a second PPP loan in the amount of $153,845 in February of this year. Shortly after, according to the complaint, substantial raises were granted to Moolman, John Johnson, and Jonathan Faulk, all white, cis-gender men.
Pride Center response
Center leaders released a statement after the complaint was filed saying they could not respond to questions.
“Due to the legal proceedings that have been initiated, the Utah Pride Center will not and cannot comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit. Our Center will make the following points and re-state the previous public positions:
“1. The Board of Directors of the Utah Pride Center support and are proud of the work done by the Utah Pride Center staff and the Executive Director, Dr. Robert Moolman. They stand by the staff, the Executive Director, and the decisions that were made for the wellbeing and longevity of the Utah Pride Center and are confident that the findings of any further investigation will validate these decisions.
“2. Three of the named plaintiffs in the current lawsuit filed these same claims of gender discrimination with the Utah Anti-Discrimination and Labor Division. The UALD independently investigated each of the three claims. The UALD investigator determined that the Pride Center had not discriminated against any of the three individuals on the basis of gender as they had alleged. Further, the UALD investigator found no improper employment actions to substantiate any of the three individual’s employment claims. The individuals chose not to appeal the investigator’s findings.
3. The Utah Pride Center commissioned an independent and thorough review by the law firm of Richards Brandt Miller Nelson of all of the processes, decision making, and actions that were taken in 2020. This review found that the Board of Directors and Executive Director did “not reveal any indications of discrimination, financial impropriety, or similar unethical conduct by UPC staff or management” The full report has been available for 8 months publicly on our website.
“4. Over the last 12 months, legal letters and requests have been issued to some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to ‘cease and desist’ with actions harming the work and wellbeing of the Utah Pride Center, harming the employees at the Utah Pride Center, harming relationships with donors and funders, and actively working against the mission of the Center.
“5. The finances and financial management of the Utah Pride Center has been audited by independent auditors at Eide Bailly LLP. The audit for FY 2018/19 has been completed and the FY 2019/20 audit will be completed in next few weeks. Eide Bailly found no evidence of financial irregularity or impropriety. The FY2018/19 audit is available on our website.
“In conclusion, the Utah Pride Center, the Board of Directors, and the executive director of the Utah Pride Center remain committed to being open, honest, transparent, and accountable for all of the actions taken. As shown by our work, our events, and our team, we will continue to ensure that our LGBTQ+ community in Utah are cared for, are seen, and receive the life-saving services we have offered for almost 30 years. Notwithstanding the challenges that 2020 presented, the Utah Pride Center has been able to continue to provide its community services and outreach that are central to the Center’s mission of support, inclusivity, and acceptance.”
QSaltLake Interview with Pitts and McDaniel
To help the community understand why the complaint was filed, QSaltLake interviewed two of the plaintiffs, Pitts and McDaniel.
Tell me about your history with the Pride Center and what the motivations are to file this complaint.
McDaniel: My history at the Utah Pride Center started as a client of the Center, being part of support groups and going to mental health therapy. Those services saved my life. So, my motivation is that the Pride Center needs to be strong; it needs to continue to exist, and it needs to exist for all people from all walks of life.
So, part of that motivation is that I don’t believe or trust the current leadership or board to accomplish that mission. There’s definitely a lot of soul-searching that has gone on about this suit — am I doing this because I’m mad? Am I doing this because I’m hurt? Yes, yes, a little bit. But at the end of the day, I’m doing this because this community deserves this resource, needs this resource, and I just think we can do a lot better.
Any person who works at a company who has been retaliated against or discriminated against, you have to decide, and I am going to fight this or am I going to take this? For me, I feel that fighting it will create the change that is needed.
Pitts: I came to the Utah Pride Center as a volunteer in 1991. It has been the most important queer organization in my life.
I started volunteering at a much higher level in 2016 as a librarian, and then I was on the board of directors for a few years. Then I decided to go all-in. I quit my corporate gig and tried to use the skills I’d learned in corporate America to really make the organization stronger.
I was really excited to bring more financial stability into the organization. Through my work in the festival, I worked to get so many sponsors, and then for the last 18 months, I worked for the Pride Center. I was the development director. I started to being in more grant money and working with more donors.
I started to have more problems in the organization as I pushed for more transparency and more ethical and more fair hiring and employment practices. I started working internally. When I see something that’s wrong or that I think is not moving towards social justice, then something needs to be done.
I turned in a formal complaint to the executive director and to the board governance committee around what I saw were very, very problematic employment practices. From the moment that happened, I started getting retaliated against. And I still kept trying. I worked another 13 months before getting fired.
The experience of getting fired wasn’t just financially devastating but emotionally devastating as well. It took me a long time to even get out of bed. I mean, we all were experiencing so much stress around the pandemic and all kinds of things, but I couldn’t stop working towards trying to make the organization stronger by continuing to look critically at the systemic processes and policies that were making this organization weaker. So, even from the outside, after a lot of soul-searching, I decided to pursue a complaint, with the ultimate goal of having a good, strong, viable Utah Pride Center.
So, tell me more about your concerns with the hiring practices within the Center.
McDaniel: The email that Liz sent to the board of directors after being fired, I just feel that is an email that, if it had been sent as an employee, would have gotten you fired or more retaliation. So, complaining to the governance board, and complaining to the executive director and to the HR company that they had hired to handle all HR issues, just led to a lot of dead ends, no protections. We were going through more retaliation and discrimination even though we had gone through the proper channels. To me, that just highlights … any organization that you work for, there’s policies and procedures. There are documents that we signed, including whistleblower policies that if we saw something we needed to report it — we were required to report it.
When you hire people who are friends, who are former board members over and over again, and there’s this culture of nepotism, people who the organization needs in order to have diversity don’t even get an option to apply because the job is never posted publicly. So, as the Pride Center says they are trying to get more diverse and trying to hire more people of color, the best thing you can do is actually post the jobs publicly and allow people of color, transgender people to apply.
Did the hiring of an outside HR company help in any way?
McDaniel: I think this is one of the most important things affecting the LGBTQ community is that, upon hiring Stratus, the options for gender were male and female on their [online] drop-down list. The option for your name was your legal name. So, employees who signed up through stratus, as we clock in online, every time they clock in, they see their deadname.
Pitts: That can trigger people to suicidal ideations.
McDaniel: Bek brought that up immediately that we need to have other options for a preferred name, and we were just told it couldn’t be done.
So the main gender justice organization in the state contracted with an HR company that would not or could not make those changes. When that kind of discrimination can happen at the Utah Pride Center, you absolutely know that it’s happening everywhere.
I’m proud of them for speaking up. That’s what should have been done. But when you speak up and nothing is changed, it hurts. And you just keep fighting and pushing for change.
There are a lot of people who were working at the Pride Center who were transgender or gender fluid, so it wasn’t just impacting a few people.
And another thing in the complaint is about misgendering. And if people are being misgendered at the Utah Pride Center — an organization which should be working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen and educating, and doing everything they can to make sure people feel safe and comfortable — that is a huge issue because they should be an example to all businesses and nonprofits on how to treat employees.
The gender discrimination going on at the Pride Center is abhorrent and unacceptable and should be unacceptable to everyone from the board on down.
So, as far as the complaint in the court, is it illegal in the state to misgender people in the workplace?
McDaniel: That’s a question in the complaint because, in June of 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that gender identity is protected by Title VII, so you’ll notice later in the complaint. And that could be an important question…
McDaniel: So, every court from here on out, every time there is a complaint about gender identity discrimination, there’s precedent set. It’s a question for the court; it’s a question for the judge … we think this is a powerful case.
The complaint also goes into your beliefs that the organization is mismanaged financially. Can you go into that?
Pitts: I became very, very concerned about financial mismanagement in the organization. I think that some of the employment practices led to some of that, but when I make a very big statement like I don’t believe the current leadership is able to do what needs to be done, both the executive leadership and the board of directors, have not been doing their jobs. They have not been filling their fiduciary responsibility to the organization. The Utah Pride Center hasn’t passed an audit since 2016. As I worked with a grant writer, they would bring to me things that we could apply for — if we had an audit.
McDaniel: So Michael [Bryant] brought a company to the attention of the executive board of a company that could be hired to help fix the books because the Center’s records were declared unauditable for some of the [recent] years.
Pitts: You’re talking about 2017. It caused a lot of alarm.
McDaniel: So here is an example of an employee coming to the executive committee with a solution to a problem, and they were completely dismissed.
After you were terminated, Liz, you sent an email with a long list of issues you thought the board of directors needed to address for the health of the Center. In the Center’s reply to the complaint, they said an investigation was done and that no wrongdoing was found. Is that not enough?
McDaniel: Shortly after that email, and when I brought the issue back to the board, an email was sent saying the issues were being investigated by the board and Stratus. None of us were ever interviewed.
Pitts: And a law firm hired by the Center. And none of them ever interviewed us about anything.
McDaniel: And then they emailed that we could talk to the board, the governance committee, or the lawyers, but no one else. We were basically gag-ordered. We were told we were not going to be involved in this process.
So, final thoughts to wrap this up.
Pitts: There are still really, really good people working at the Pride Center trying to provide critical services to the community. There are some very wonderful people there trying their best to serve the community.
McDaniel: Of the people who are working there now. Does the community feel like it’s a good idea to reorganize in such a way to create C-level positions [the executive director and others added titles like CEO, CFO, and COO in the past several months.] and get promotions and add jobs after such a devastating year? I just think that’s a question. Does anyone support that, and why?
I don’t know of any other nonprofit which has laid off more than half of its staff. I’ve seen many who have bounced back and have reopened their doors. At this time, the Center is still not open to the public. Does the community think this is acceptable? Q