Lawsuit reveals behind-the-scenes conflict between leaders of Sudbury non-profit groups
Court documents show that the people behind two non-profit groups in Greater Sudbury who fight for the vulnerable have been warring between themselves in court for the last few years.
Both groups help victims of crime, but the individuals leading each organization are embroiled in lawsuits working their way through the legal system.
At issue is a dispute between the people behind Sudbury and Area Victim Services (SAVS) and the leader of Angels of Hope Against Human Trafficking (AOHAHT), two groups in the city with related mandates.
SAVS is an agency created by the Ministry of the Attorney General that works to help victims of crime, while AOHAHT is focused on helping victims of human trafficking.
“Suffice it to say theirs has been a relationship marred by conflict,” said a court transcript of the latest decision in the case.
The dispute dates to April 14, 2020, when AOHAHT executive director Cristina Scarpellini sent a “cease and desist” letter to SAVS executive director Erica McDonald-Gertz and Nicole St-Jean, who leads the human trafficking initiative at SAVS.
The letter was also sent to the SAVS board of directors and the ministry.
It’s important to note that none of the allegations mentioned in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
The letter accused McDonald-Gertz and St-Jean of making “defamatory and libellous” statements about Scarpellini.
The statements, Scarpellini alleged, included five main accusations: that she was using drugs at an open forum; that AOHAHT is not trustworthy; that AOHAHT has mishandled money; that fraud was happening at the organization; and, that Scarpellini “was crazy, unstable, and psychologically unwell and should not be working in the social service field.”
In response, McDonald-Gertz and St-Jean had their lawyer send Scarpellini a letter that denied anyone from their organization made those statements and demanded a retraction.
When they received no reply, the pair filed a statement of claim in court, alleging Scarpellini’s letter was defamatory, that SAVS depends on its reputation to deliver services to clients and that publishing the letter “had caused harm.”
In response, Scarpellini’s lawyer filed a statement of defence and counter-claim, largely based on the allegations listed in the letter. The counter-claim “sought general and special damages, aggravated damages, and punitive damages for defamation and injurious falsehood,” said a transcription of the court decision.
Her lawyer, Monty Dhaliwal, also filed what’s known as an ‘Anti-SLAPP’ (strategic lawsuit against public participation) in an attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed.
Anti-SLAPP laws are aimed at preventing lawsuits by larger organizations that have no prospect of succeeding and are primarily aimed at silencing the defendant.
To succeed in an Anti-SLAPP motion, a defendant has to convince the judge that the issue is related to public interest, that the lawsuit doesn’t have merit and is largely intended to intimidate the defendant.
In the case against Scarpellini, her lawyer sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, to have her legal costs covered as well as an award for damages of $50,000.
“The defendant submits that the letter was an expression made on a matter of public interest – namely, protecting her reputation and the reputation of AOH(AHT) as service providers to members of the public who are victims of human trafficking; and, limiting the damage to her and to AOH(AHT) which may be caused by the disputed statements,” the court decision said.
But the lawyer for McDonald-Gertz and St-Jean replied that the motion to dismiss is a misuse of Anti-SLAPP laws.
“They submit that it was the defendant who defamed the plaintiffs by issuing a letter containing false allegations to the SAVS board and the ministry,” the decision said.
“They argue that the defendant forced them to seek relief from the court by failing to retract the letter.”
If the Anti-SLAPP motion succeeded, “they will be defenseless not only against the defamatory allegations in the letter but against future harassment by the defendant. They submit that dismissing their claim would be tantamount to sanctioning the defendant’s conduct.”
In response, Scarpellini’s lawyer argued that this was another attempt “by the plaintiffs to silence and discredit her.
“She argues that it is in the public interest that her ability to provide services to victims of human trafficking be protected, and that she be granted relief against the plaintiffs for interfering with her ability to provide those services. She submits that granting her motion will send a clear message to the plaintiffs that they cannot abuse their positions within SAVS to the detriment of the defendant, her organization and her clients.”
In her decision, which was released May 15, Justice K.E. Cullin wrote that the first thing she had to decide was whether Scarpellini’s letter could be reasonably viewed as “defamatory.”
“The plaintiffs say that the letter accused them of lying about the defendant and AOH(AHT),” the judge wrote.
“In addition to any impact within the community, they allege that the letter has harmed their relationship with their employer and its government funding agency.”
Cullin ruled there was a reasonable argument to be made that the intent of the letter sent by Scarpellini “was motivated, in whole or in part, by spite, malice, ill-will or ulterior purpose.”
“It is clear from the evidence that there was animus between the plaintiffs and the defendant and that the defendant had publicly aired grievances against the plaintiffs on prior occasions, at times inappropriately,” the judge wrote.
“It would not be difficult for a court to conclude that the communication of the letter was made with the ulterior purpose of causing discord in the relationship between the plaintiffs and their superiors.”
Cullin said that it is clear that AOHAHT and SAVS have a poor relationship that has only gotten worse.
“Separate and apart from the letter and this claim, each side has made prior accusations and allegations against the other,” Cullin said.
“This litigation is the culmination of that conflict.”
Considering the important role both organizations play in the community, she ruled that it was in the public’s interest to allow the lawsuit against Scarpellini to continue.
“The parties’ conflict has trickled into both their delivery of services and their relationships with community partners,” Cullin said.
“I find that it is in the public interest to permit this proceeding to continue either to resolution or adjudication on a full evidentiary record. Ultimately, either the parties will settle upon a framework within which they can co-exist or their organizations, community partners and funding bodies will receive a ruling which will allow them to identify the source of the conflict, take corrective action, and forge a path forward. Only then will the public interest be served.”
She concluded her ruling by urging both sides to try and resolve their differences in a case conference.
CTV News sought comment from lawyers representing both sides of the case.
Dhaliwal, lawyer for Scarpellini, sent us a statement in response that said, in part:
“Notwithstanding the results of the Anti-SLAPP motion, Cristina continues to vehemently deny the allegations made against her and feels that she is the one who has been defamed by the plaintiffs. She will defend herself in court.”
“This is a complex dispute between private individuals which involved volumes of evidence before the court. It is also material to understand that AOHAHT and SAAVS are not litigants in this dispute.”
Read the full decision here.
While court documents list the acronym for Angels of Hope Against Human Trafficking as AOH, CTV News has updated the article above to AOHAHT to avoid confusion after a request by Ancient Order of Hibernians who also uses the acronym AOH and is not at all connected to the story.
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