LOS ANGELES (CNS) — A former communications executive for the Cesar Chavez Foundation is suing the organization and the son of its founder, alleging she was fired for complaining about harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Jessica Estrella’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit against the CCF and Paul F. Chavez alleges retaliation, wrongful termination, gender discrimination, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract.
Estrella is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against the charitable foundation founded by the late United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez and his son, the CCF’s president and chairman of its board of directors.
Marc Grossman, a CCF spokesman, released a statement this week in response to the lawsuit.
“This is the first we’ve heard about this case, and we haven’t been served,” Grossman said. “However, the allegations in the lawsuit are false. We believe we will prevail if the case proceeds.”
Estrella is the founder and president of a communications firm that specializes in branding, public relations and content creation, and was recently named by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to serve on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Commission, her suit states.
In February 2015, Estrella says she met with Paul Chavez and Monica Parra, director of the National Chavez Center in the city of Keene, east of Bakersfield. Three months later, Estrella accepted an offer to be the CCF’s vice president of strategic communications at a salary of $130,000 with a $10,000 deferred bonus, according to her court papers.
About three weeks after she was hired, CCF’s human resources director, Richard Torres, told Estrella that Chavez had changed his mind about furnishing her office with a new phone, computer and printer and said she would have to settle in the interim for a laptop, the suit states.
“Mr. Torres proceeded to shut the door and spent roughly 90 minutes giving plaintiff an overview of the CCF, including the story of infidelities on the part of Paul Chavez and Monica Parra,” the complaint alleges.
Torres said he was surprised Parra “allowed” Chavez to hire Estrella because she was “attractive,” described Parra as “fiercely jealous” and gave the plaintiff tips on how she should behave around Parra if she “wanted to keep her job,” the suit alleges.
Estrella completed a 90-day performance review, was praised for her work on the CCF gala, and her three-year strategic plan was accepted by the board of directors, according to her lawsuit.
But Estrella never received her $10,000 bonus and Chavez began to be abusive toward her “at the direction of his girlfriend, Monica Parra,” according to the suit, which further alleges both began treating the plaintiff differently because of her gender.
“Ms. Parra appeared to target plaintiff and other women who reported to her and to Paul Chavez,” the suit alleges.
Parra embarrassed Estrella at a CCF event when she went “barreling past plaintiff without shaking the hand of plaintiff or plaintiff’s husband,” creating an awkward moment for Estrella in front of guests and important fund-raisers, the suit states.
Parra’s daughter, Briana Fimbres, threatened to punch Estrella during a CCF event after-party, according to the suit, which alleges Fimbres was drunk at the time.
UFW co-founder and famed civil rights activist Dolores Huerta was referred to by the CCF’s management team “in gross, sexist terms when (Estrella) asked if Huerta could be included in meetings,” the suit states.
Miriam Pawel, author of the book “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” was described in similar derogatory terms, the suit alleges.
In April, Estrella says she complained to Chavez “about the hostile work environment at the CCF.” She claims she also spoke to Torres and hoped he would launch an independent investigation of her grievances, but no such probe occurred and Chavez yelled curse words at her for coming forward.
Estrella additionally complained that Michael Nowakoswki, the CCF’s executive vice president, was recorded on video slandering gay people and also recommended that the organization sever ties with him “after the Arizona media reported on his improper and unethical financial dealings favoring the CCF,” but her concerns were “ignored and mocked,” the suit states.
Estrella says she was fired by the CCF in May and escorted out of its offices. She was offered and rejected a small severance package that included a confidentiality provision and an agreement not to sue the CCF, according to her complaint.