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}
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, 2019

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.