The company that Velma Gilbert worked for was called Caring Hands, but it didn't seem to care much about one very important thing.
Last summer, Gilbert, a licensed practical nurse, quit her job with the Littleton home health-care company after her employers continually refused to pay her wages. When Gilbert filed complaints with the state labor board, she wasn't alone: According to the Colorado Department of Labor, 56 complaints have been filed against Caring Hands since July. Of those claims, all of which allege that the company failed to pay employees' wages, 22 have since been settled.
Gilbert figures she is owed about $3,200 for work she did between June 20, when she was hired, and August 4, when she quit. She received only one paycheck, for $56, and never received a promised $1,500 signing bonus. Westword reported on Gilbert's situation in an August 27 story titled "The Check Is in the Mail!"
After taking her complaint to the labor board, in September Gilbert filed a lawsuit against Caring Hands alleging nonpayment of wages and breach of contract. In October, Caring Hands responded with a counterclaim. Company officials sued Gilbert for libel, based partly on her earlier comments to Westword. They say she wrongly accused them of reporting her to the state nursing board for client abandonment (a serious charge that, if true, could result in the revocation of Gilbert's nursing license). According to the pleading, she "published her false accusation to third parties and had such false statement published in Westword."
Gilbert's attorney contends that Caring Hands doesn't have a libel case because as far as Gilbert knew, her comments to Westword were true. "The accusations she stated are not false," says Kathryn Redwine. "They were based on truth as she knew it to date." Both Gilbert and Brenda Toliver-Locke, director of the Denver Anti-Discrimination Office, say Caring Hands director Janice Bua personally informed them that she had filed the complaint charging client abandonment. Bua did not return phone calls from Westword for this or the previous article.
Redwine says she thinks Caring Hands filed the libel suit to intimidate Gilbert. "My guess is they wanted to deter her from further litigation," she says.
But a new development may deter everyone from further litigation.
On November 16, Caring Hands filed for bankruptcy. The company has yet to file its financial records, but 197 parties have been notified of the bankruptcy; presumably, many of those are creditors.
"Essentially, my representation of the companies is over," says attorney Jay Jester, who was representing Caring Hands in its libel suit against Gilbert. "It's now in the hands of the bankruptcy trustee."
Bankruptcy trustee Steve Peters says he will decide whether to allow the libel suit to move forward. "They have not filed all the background information they're required to file," he says of Caring Hands. He won't make a decision until all of the company's financial statements are filed and after a creditors' meeting later this month.
The bankruptcy proceedings may help Gilbert avoid the libel claim, but they do the opposite for her efforts to get paid. "The general rule is that when [bankruptcy] suits like this are filed, the automatic stay stops the continuation of the suit by the plaintiff," Peters says.
Caring Hands' bankruptcy attorney, Jeffrey Weinman, also did not return calls from Westword.
Redwine says the bankruptcy may discourage others from seeking the wages they're due. "It has deterred some attorneys from seeking any other clients, because settlement is going to be way down the road, if at all," she says. But because it's a matter of unpaid wages, former employees would take priority over other creditors should Caring Hands make any settlements.
Redwine says that at one point, Caring Hands offered to settle by paying ten cents on the dollar to any employee who had complained to them.
"I counter-offered with 80 percent, and they declined that," she says. According to Redwine, the company made no subsequent counter-offer, and further discussions went nowhere.
For those workers who stayed with Caring Hands, relief of sorts did come in October, when almost all of them moved on to another home health-care company, Life Source Services. There had been talk over the summer that the two companies might merge, and Life Source vice president Jay Analovitch says Caring Hands did approach his company about being acquired. "It didn't work financially," Analovitch says. "It wasn't a good fit."
However, he says his company extended an invitation to all Caring Hands employees who worked as care providers to join Life Source, and 20 or 25 people took him up on the offer. "All the problems they had, they didn't have here," says Analovitch.
As evidence of those problems, several other lawsuits are being prepared against what is left of Caring Hands. Redwine says she has been contacted by so many of the company's former employees that she can't handle them all; some former employees are reportedly filing complaints in small claims court.
Another attorney, Theresa Corrada, says her firm is in discussion with about forty former Caring Hands employees who claim they weren't paid during "the last two or three months" of their employment.
The bankruptcy will force the company to disclose its financial records, which "will facilitate things in that if there is any money in the corporation, it will be easier to find and get," Corrada says.
For Gilbert, who says staff were often talked into staying with cash bonuses, there's no "if" about it. "They had the money," she says. "They paid only when they had to pay."
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