Stop Audra Houghton and Joanna Otero-Cruz from retaliating against whistle-blowers

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As Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia's Board Chair, Joanna Otero-Cruz has allowed Audra Houghton, Interim Executive Director, to illegally terminate (or "ban") volunteers and charities if they voice their concerns about how the the shelter is run. 

This has been done numerous times when Vincent Medley was executive director. When it was "mutually decided" that he should leave his post, his director of operations (who worked with him in Texas) was put in his place. As a result, instead of addressing the illegal bans that had been done in the past, she has continued them. 

In May, Joanna Otero-Cruz informed me that I was "terminated" as a volunteer for "violating the Volunteer Code of Conduct." This was done after three years of being an active volunteer and foster. I had fostered close to 300 cats and kittens during this time (some of which are pictured).

I was never given a copy of the Code of Conduct. After asking her repeatedly for a copy of it, she referred me to the Volunteer Handbook. However, the Code of Conduct is not in the handbook (although it is referenced in it). 

I believe that I was terminated as a volunteer because I asked for an investigation into discrimination, harassment and money mismanagement going on at ACCT. This feeling is reinforced because staff at ACCT were unaware that I had been terminated until several days after I was notified. And then Audra Houghton determined that I should also be terminated as a foster, even though the two things are not connected. 

Joanna Otero-Cruz claims she is willing to meet with me, but refuses to give me a copy of the Code of Conduct so I know what I did. Staff at ACCT have no idea of anything I may have done that would warrant termination. 

I believe they are trying to silence me to prevent other volunteers from speaking out when they see abuses. Other volunteers have been terminated by Audra Houghton for posting concerns about ACCT on Facebook. 

Volunteers should be able to speak out without fearing retaliation. It is not only morally and ethically correct, it is the law. It is a violation of Section 1983 for a state or municipal government to take action designed to prevent or intimidate people from exercising their First Amendment rights, or punish them for doing so, and there can be no dispute that complaining about inhumane conditions at animal shelters is a constitutionally protected right.

A rescuer or volunteer not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against inhumane practices committed by a governmental entity, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified. As the Supreme Court has stated, a government entity “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests—especially, his interest in freedom of speech.”

These principles were recently applied in a legal action brought by a rescuer who was terminated for calling attention to similar conditions at Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control shelters. (No Kill Advocacy Centers. County of Los Angeles, L.A. Superior Court Case No. BS112581). Significantly, the Court found that plaintiff’s suspension would no doubt discourage such a person from exercising her First Amendment rights and specifically ruled, following a line of established federal precedent, that the opportunity to serve as a volunteer is a protected government privilege. As a result, the Court required the County to restore the rescuer’s access to the shelter. In the case of ACCT, the agency has enacted rules specifically indicating that volunteers will be terminated for exercising those rights.

In addition, a Federal Judge in Maryland ruled that a volunteer, rescuer, or any other member of the public cannot be banned from a government shelter simply because he or she has criticized shelter management, complained about the policies and practices of the shelter, or posted information online that officials believe is unflattering to the shelter.

Similar lawsuits were brought against Hemstead Township, NY; Pryor, OK; Missouri City, MO; Norfolk, VA, and San Diego County, CA. In every case, the courts ruled in favor of the volunteers who were terminated in retaliation for speaking out against the conditions at the shelter.

Please sign and help protect ACCT volunteers and fosters from illegal retaliation when they speak out.