Positive Resource Center
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A former employee of a San Francisco HIV/AIDS-related nonprofit is suing the agency, saying she was terminated after raising concerns over a contract that she said could have hurt clients.
Jane Gelfand filed an amended complaint against Positive Resource Center in San Francisco Superior Court in October 2011, alleging wrongful termination and other violations.
In its amended response, PRC, which claims to be the only place for people living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS to get comprehensive benefits counseling and employment services in the city, says Gelfand tried to "bully" the agency and raised concerns because she was starting her own nonprofit.
Gelfand, whose attorney expects a trial to begin in April, started working at PRC in 1998. She served as managing legal director of the agency's benefits counseling program for several years before she left in September 2009.
According to Gelfand's complaint, in February 2009 she discovered that Positive Resource Center management had been performing under a contract with the Social Security Administration, unbeknownst to her or other attorneys at the nonprofit. The contract was related to SSA's "Ticket to Work" program, through which PRC would be reimbursed for working with people on SSA benefits who were considering work.
This meant that low-income, disabled clients enrolled in Ticket to Work most likely wouldn't be eligible to receive SSA benefits that PRC's attorneys in the benefits program had helped them obtain, the complaint says.
Gelfand saw the situation as a likely conflict of interest and realized that PRC was "contractually obligated to disclose privileged and confidential attorney-client information" related to clients in the benefits program to SSA, according to the document.
The SSA's interests were adverse to those of clients in the benefits program, and disclosing the information endangered those clients' benefits, Gelfand claims. Among other problems, she also worried about PRC attorneys possibly being disbarred, the complaint says.
The document indicates she quickly contacted PRC Executive Director Brett Andrews about the issue and also eventually raised concerns with others, including the agency's board of directors. The complaint doesn't list Andrews as a defendant.
In July 2009, Gelfand was informed that PRC would disengage from the SSA contract, the document says. However, Gelfand's complaint says concerns about confidentiality and other issues remained. (A PRC court filing says that the nonprofit eventually decided to terminate the Ticket to Work contract, indicating that that decision was made while Gelfand was still working for the agency.)
She continued raising concerns and eventually, in September 2009, an attorney representing Gelfand at the time said in an email to Andrews that "PRC had made it impossible" for Gelfand and another staffer to "ethically and legally practice law" at the nonprofit, Gelfand's complaint says. The two PRC workers eventually concluded that their employment with the nonprofit had been "constructively discharged," according to the filing. The last day for which Gelfand received wages from PRC was September 15, 2009.
Among other claims included in its response filed in December 2011, PRC says that Gelfand tried to "bully" the agency and make the benefits program "a separate entity of which she would be the executive director."
When those efforts failed, and while she was still employed by the nonprofit, Gelfand "secretly planned a competing enterprise and recruited PRC personnel," the agency claims. She formed the enterprise "and made use of information copied or taken from PRC in so doing," the organization says in court documents.
Gelfand became the director of Public Benefits Attorneys Inc. The defunct agency's website includes a press release that says PBA, "a new nonprofit focused exclusively on providing free legal representation to low-income, uninsured San Francisco residents, officially began representing clients" on October 5, 2009.
In a late July 2010 interview with the Bay Area Reporter , Gelfand mentioned the SSA contract and said she'd been "constructively terminated" from PRC in September 2009. She said that afterward, "out of ethical necessity," she founded Public Benefits Attorneys in an "attempt to continue to fulfill my duties as an attorney, which is an undivided duty of loyalty in representing my clients."
As to how many of the PBA clients had come from Positive Resource Center, Gelfand said that was "a complicated question." The Public Benefits Attorneys website says, "As of September 30, 2010, we wound up our legal practice."
Asked in July 2010 about why her agency was shutting down, Gelfand said there'd been a dispute with PRC over who the attorney of record was. She indicated a judge eventually sided with her, but she also indicated that financial and other factors led to her organization's demise.
In an email this week, Gelfand's attorney, Rob Fordiani of Equality Lawyers LLP, declined a request to interview her.
Fordiani said in an interview last week that no mediation is taking place, and the case will be going to trial.
He declined to say what Gelfand is doing for a living now. Asked how much money she wants, Fordiani said, "That remains to be seen."
"I think a jury will come back with a very favorable verdict in the plaintiff's favor," he said.
In response to an interview request, PRC's attorney Sara Church Reese of Gordon and Rees LLP said in an email, "PRC's view of the case is set forth in the affirmative defenses in its answer."
Andrews, PRC's executive director, said in an email this week that his agency "does not discuss personnel disputes in the press, because of the need to protect the privacy of all concerned."