Veterinarian sues Louisiana shelter for wrongful termination

Veterinarian sues Louisiana shelter for wrongful termination

Cangelosi contends she was fired after blowing the whistle on illegal activities.
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Jul 01, 2013

Last October, Amy Cangelosi, DVM, of Livingston Parish, La., was terminated as a part-time veterinarian at the East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control and Rescue Center in Baton Rouge, La. In June, Cangelosi filed a lawsuit against the parish, which owns and operates the shelter; Companion Animal Alliance (CAA), a nonprofit organization that runs the shelter; and the alliance’s now-former director Kimberly Sherlaw. In the lawsuit Cangelosi contends that she was fired for reporting illegal activity at the shelter.

According to the lawsuit, the shelter hired Cangelosi Aug. 2, 2011, to provide veterinary services, in tandem with another veterinarian, to the animals housed at the shelter. Cangelosi says she was excited to take the job because it was a no-kill shelter. “At first everything was pretty good,” Cangelosi told dvm360. She says the veterinary team was extremely busy, understaffed and stressed, but everyone worked together.

Sherlaw was hired as the CAA director in April 2012, when Cangelosi contends the problems began. “She pretty much tore apart our veterinary program,” Cangelosi says. “She was abusive to the staff; she was abusive to animals.”

The lawsuit states that almost immediately after Sherlaw began serving as director, she began harassing Cangelosi. According to the document, Sherlaw “yelled at and chastised” Cangelosi when she opposed drug administration by nonveterinarian staff, “screamed at” her when she opposed euthanasia procedures performed by nonveterinarians, and told her not to question Sherlaw’s actions because “you don’t question your director.”

Cangelosi claims that Sherlaw also dramatically increased and ordered the illegal euthanasia of animals at the shelter. Cangelosi says she was threatened with termination when she opposed the practice. “I didn’t do euthanasia. I didn’t do any unless they were suffering,” Cangelosi says. “We did everything we could to save as many dogs and cats that we could.”

Cangelosi says her co-worker Marianne Fairchild, DVM, CAB, and other longtime employees were also terminated or forced to resign over opposition to the shelter’s practices under Sherlaw. “Anyone who questioned her would be fired automatically,” Cangelosi says. Plus, euthanasia was being carried out in front of other animals, she says. “They’d pile up the dogs and let the other dogs look at them,” she says.

By Sept. 20, 2012, Cangelosi and several other co-workers and volunteers delivered a letter of complaint to the city parish and the CAA. The letter reported unacceptable shelter conditions and violations of medical standards. “Numerous cats placed in Cat-Stray Hold had been dying with several of them found dead in their cages because of the deplorable condition of the hold area,” Cangelosi stated in the letter. She said Sherlaw refused her advice regarding the area.

Cangelosi also reported “beheading of [deceased] animals in front of living animals, a violation of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Euthanasia Guidelines and Shelter Standards and Louisiana law.” Her objection wasn’t to the dismemberment—the state diagnostic lab will not accept the entire body of an animal for rabies testing—but the fact that it was done in front of other animals.

In addition, the letter accused Sherlaw of:

> ordering unvaccinated animals to be placed into the general population when the shelter had no vaccine on hand

> ordering the release of animals without rabies vaccines

> allowing euthanasia to be performed by nonlicensed, noncertified shelter employees

> forcing veterinarians to perform surgery and microchipping before animals’ stray hold was up, a violation of city-parish ordinances.

Cangelosi contends Sherlaw’s threats of termination intensified toward Cangelosi and others after the Sept. 20 letter of complaint was received. “They tried to get rid of me by making it miserable,” she says. “I felt like the only way to stand between what was happening to the animals was to stay there. The animals I saw I knew were going to get taken care of properly. We were there for the animals. I cried all the way to work and all the way home.”

She says she voiced her opposition to anyone who would listen, but nothing changed. “Finally I had had enough,” she says. Cangelosi contacted the Louisiana Board of Veterinary Medicine (LBVM).

She says Mike Tomino, legal counsel for the Louisiana board, confirmed that if such conditions and actions were in fact taking place at the shelter, it would be in violation of the law. “No, you’re absolutely right on all counts,” she says Tomino told her. “Put it in writing and send it in.”

Cangelosi forwarded an e-mail containing her correspondence with Tomino—again reiterating her opposition to the shelter’s operations—to the CAA board, Sherlaw and other shelter staff members. She ended the letter by writing, “Mr. Tomino has indicated to me that we may have some leeway to eliminate these problems ourselves, but if that doesn’t happen, the LBVM will have no choice but to step in. My wish is that we can all work together, but it must be done lawfully, and with respect to our practice act and to one another.”

Cangelosi was fired the next day. “It was literally 16 hours after I sent the e-mail,” she says. Cangelosi was told that CAA was moving in another direction and ordered to leave. “When they called me into the office I was in the middle of a bunch of cases,” she says. They would not permit her to finish with her patients but escorted her from the premises, Cangelosi says.

The lawsuit contents that Cangelosi was subjected to illegal “reprisal” culminating in her termination and the intentional inflection of emotional distress. It claims that she sustained “severe and extreme emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation, past and future lost wages and benefits, and all such other damages as will be more fully shown at trial.”

Cangelosi says what she really wants is simple. “I want the money they owe me, and I just want it to stop,” she says. “It’s got to stop being about politics and start being about animals.” Cangelosi hopes when CAA’s contract with the city is up in December that it won’t be renewed. “I think CAA is a failure,” she says. “I don’t understand why the city parish even allows them to operate.”

Cangelosi says the Louisiana state veterinary board has launched an investigation, but Tomino would not confirm this. In an e-mail to dvm360, he said any investigative action taken by the Louisiana veterinary board was confidential. In the meantime, Sherlaw has resigned from her post at CAA amid the controversy. Cangelosi says Sherlaw has not been served in the lawsuit because she cannot be found; therefore a court date has not been set.

Cangelosi is currently teaching at the North Shore Technical Community College in the veterinary technician program.

Ty McMains, CAA board member and treasurer, says the alliance has no comment on the lawsuit at this time. However, he did say the CAA-run shelter has new leadership in executive director Beth Brewster. Brewster is not associated with the Cangelosi lawsuit, but has already faced a very public controversy at the shelter in May over a mistakenly euthanzied dog. Brewster said in a letter to the public: “Over the last four years the Companion Animal Alliance has undergone many changes in both leadership and policy. Our structure and strategies are now stronger than ever. Due to a tremendous amount of community collaboration, the homeless animals of Baton Rouge are now receiving more attention than ever before.” Brewster is the CAA’s fourth executive director in three years.