1. Archive

Three former workers allege discrimination and retaliation at Pinellas non-profit

Kirk Ray Smith, president and CEO of Religious Community Services. Smith and the group are being sued by three former employees who claim Smith made inappropriate comments and demeaned female employees. [Times}
Published May 28

CLEARWATER — Three former employees of a Pinellas County charity are accusing the group's top executive of making inappropriate comments and verbally abusing female staffers, then retaliating against them when they complained.

In a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County court, Suzanne Ruley, Lisa Matzner and Erica Wiedeman claim that Religious Community Services President and CEO Kirk Ray Smith told female employees that they should wear lipstick and should appeal to his ego by telling him how nice he looks.

Smith also routinely demeaned and shouted at female employees and threatened to fire them, the lawsuit states. He would announce that the "alpha male had arrived' when he got to work in the morning and, on occasion, touched female employees on the shoulders or around the waist.

Ruley and Wiedemann were fired after they brought their complaints directly to the non-profit's governing board, the lawsuit claims. Matzner resigned after her job was eliminated.

The three also filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination based on their age, sex and race. The three women are white and over 40. Smith, 48, is black.

A fourth former employee, Dolores Cole, also filed a complaint with the commission against Smith and Religious Community Services. She is not named in the lawsuit.

The commission dismissed three of the complaints, saying it was unable to conclude whether discrimination took place but granted the women the right to sue the non-profit. Two complaints filed by Wiedemann were referred to the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights.

The lawsuit also names board member John Goldsmith, former board member Denise Nestor, Chief Operating Office Melinda Perry and an employee leasing company through which the woman were employed.

Officials from the non-profit dispute all the claims in the lawsuit, said spokeswoman Lauren Misa.

"RCS will vigorously defend the lawsuit," Misa said in a statement.

Based in Clearwater, the non-profit group's operations include a food bank, a center for women at risk of domestic abuse and a shelter for homeless families. It reported raising $7.3 million in donations and grants in 2016.

Smith was hired by the non-profit group in late 2016, according to a biography on the group's website. Before that, he was executive director of the YMCA of Greater Springfield, MA., where he resigned in May 2015. His resignation letter to board members included a complaint that he endured a "number of racially charged attacks, character assassinations and the undermining of my authority," according to a report in The Republican.

Smith also bills himself as an author, motivational speaker, pastor and op-ed columnist on a website for Kirk Smith Unlimited & Associates, a consultancy firm offering strategic planning, fundraising and organizational planning services, among others.

Frederick A. Hurst Sr., the publisher of Springfield's black community newspaper Af-Am Point of View, said he never heard employees at the YMCA complain about Smith's behavior. In a 2018 column about Smith he wrote: "Kirk was at once a strong black man and at the same time extremely insecure."

Smith's arrival at Religious Community Services began a period of upheaval, with a string of departures including Ruley, who was director of development, and both the head of the food bank and the woman's center.

Soon after he started, Smith told Ruley that her credentials meant nothing and that he was the face of the group, according to the lawsuit. In a meeting with Ruley's development team in January 2017, he told them he was head of human resources and that he "has no problem firing people."

That same month, he demanded Ruley resign after she sent a request for medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to board members. When she refused, he fired her, the complaint states.

Wiedemann was executive director of The Haven, the non-profit's domestic violence shelter for about two years through 2018.

In March, 2018, her attorney wrote to Board of Directors Chairman John Goldsmith to complain that the board and the group's leadership were protecting a "corporate culture of discrimination."

Three days later, she was called into Smith's office, given a final written warning and placed on probation, according to the lawsuit. It stated that her failure to follow the chain of command had created a "distraction' for the CEO. She had received no previous warnings. She was fired June 26.

Her EEOC complaint states that several other employees reported instances of discrimination in the workplace to Goldsmith, the board chairman.

Goldsmith is an attorney with Trenam Law. Another Trenam attorney, Amy Drushal, represented Religious Community Services during the EEOC complaints. Drushal said she cannot comment on pending litigation. On Friday, she filed two motions asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Matzner, who was director of grant development, mostly worked from home. She was also taking unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act as her husband was battling cancer.

In one early encounter with her new boss, he grabbed her by the waist and pulled her up against him, the lawsuit states. In May 2017, she sent a memo about Smith's behavior to two board members.

Within a few weeks, she was told her job was to be relocated to Clearwater. She was then put on probation and warned to stop engaging board members, the lawsuit states. The next time she returned from medical leave, she found out her job had been eliminated. She was offered another job but eventually resigned, saying she was being mistreated.

Patrice Pucci, who is representing the three women in the lawsuit, said the statements made by her clients to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were signed under penalty of perjury.

"I'm confident they have a case," she said.


  1. Sally Carlson of Seminole talks to her newly adopted 5-year-old miniature poodle held by Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center volunteer Mary Claire Streator. Potential owners browsed some of the 300 puppies that were put up for adoption Sunday in the gymnasium at All People's Life Center in Tampa. The designer-breed dogs had been rescued from Trish's All Breeds Pet Grooming in Tampa, where they were found sick and malnourished. Prospective owners were chosen out of thousands who applied during a lottery-type system and were able pick out a dog. LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The animals were found in deplorable conditions at a grooming business in September. Their new owners had 15 minutes to make a selection.
  2. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    The fire destroyed one business and damaged others inside a strip mall at the corner of 49th Street South and 1st Avenue South
  3. Chief Veterinarian Mallory Offner examines a female rescue puppy at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    With 250 of the pooches ready for adoption, each potential puppy parent has a 1-in-4 shot at getting picked in today’s drawing.
  4. Hillsborough Community College solicited "non-binding letters of interest or intent” last month from developers interested in purchasing the Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson District Administration Center on Davis Islands. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Developers have eyed the 3.7 acre waterfront parcel for years, but recent interest has prompted the college’s trustees to finally start the conversation.
  5. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Pasco firefighters said the blaze broke out at a home in the 3000 block of Thistledown Lane.
  6. Four, six-week old puppies rescued from inadequate breeding conditions, wait to be checked by veterinary staff at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center. Over 300 small-breed dogs were rescued from a breeder on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    To qualify for a Hillsborough County lottery, apply in person Sunday and pass a background check.
  7. Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman was behind the push for a ban on teenage vaping. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
    The change makes it illegal to sell products to under-age customers and bans minors from possessing vaping paraphernalia.
  8. April Griffin
    The former Hillsborough County School Board member will compete against longtime agency employee Nancy Millan for the Constitutional office. The deadline for qualifying is June 12, 2020.
  9. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    The first happened at about 4:30 p.m. in North Ybor and left one man wounded. At 5 p.m., a man was fatally shot in Sulphur Springs.
  10. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. Tampa Bay Times
    Stephone Johnson, 27, faces as misdemeanor domestic battery charge.