Employees Sue Vision Care Charity for Discrimination

by Martha Sadler

Daniel_Simentales.jpgOne of Santa Barbara’s most important
and distinctive charities, Surgical Eye Expeditions International
(SEE), has been hit with a lawsuit by four employees — one of whom
has since been fired — who are accusing the organization of racial
discrimination and harassment. Although the supervisor they accused
of using racial slurs left the job in November, the plaintiffs
claim that their complaints garnered continuing defamation,
harassment, and other retaliation from members of the
organization’s board of directors. Founded in Santa Barbara in
1974, SEE is a nonprofit that specializes in providing medical and
surgical services to blind people who cannot otherwise afford such

The lawsuit, filed in mid January, describes a hostile workplace
in which people had to listen to a white supervisor use crude
racial epithets, including “nigger” and “stupid Mexicans” to
describe clients and coworkers. Three of the plaintiffs are
Hispanic; one is black. When the plaintiffs complained to the human
resources director, who is Asian, the supervisor against whom the
complaints were filed then allegedly said of the human resources
director, “I hate that little chink, or Jap, or whatever he is.”
The same supervisor allegedly called another employee “white
trash,” made jokes about Jews, and referred to a Chumash leader as
“Chief Powwow.”

The plaintiffs allege they were retaliated against for filing
grievances. According to the suit, two of the boardmembers — one of
them Dr. Harry Brown, SEE’s founder, CEO emeritus, and the previous
president — placed flyers on some employees’ chairs that read “Is
this the hill you want to die on?” which the plaintiffs interpreted
as a warning not to complain. Rayshawn Malcolm, SEE’s operations
manager since 1998, alleges that he received no response to the two
grievances he filed except that boardmembers have taken to standing
over him and watching him work, in a way that he regards as
harassment. In addition, according to the suit, Brown and the two
supervisors made defamatory comments about him to other employees,
clients, and vendors, impugning his competence.

Rodrigo Gonzalez, who coordinates the local Santa Barbara Vision
Care Program (SBVCP), said he believes that SEE is trying to force
him out of the organization because he has “been vocal about the
organization’s treatment of the local Hispanic community.” He said
that SEE refused to post notices in Spanish about the SBVCP, and
when he applied for a different position in the organization, the
criteria were changed specifically to disqualify him.

According to Daniel Simentales — the former international
clinics coordinator, who was fired on February 9 for
insubordination — a white woman with very little experience was
promoted to supervise the office while the others were not given an
opportunity to apply for the position. “Malcolm has been the
operations manager for years,” Simentales said. “He knew the job
inside and out, upside and down, and can do anybody’s job there.”
Simentales said he was fired for insubordination on February 9
after writing a letter to the new supervisor saying that he refused
to recognize her authority. “I understand that if somebody is your
supervisor you are supposed to do what they say,” he explained.
“But I was fighting the battle for almost a year, and I lost it,”
he said. “Well, I don’t want to say I lost it, but I did write
saying, ‘You are not my supervisor despite your title.’” The
plaintiffs are represented by Maureen O’Hara of Anticouni &
Associates, who is asking for compensatory, punitive, and exemplary

When contacted by The Independent, the person answering the
telephone at SEE’s offices said the organization has no comment on
the suit. According to a letter from Brown, written on the occasion
of the organization’s 30th anniversary in 2004 and posted on the
SEE Web site, the organization restored the sight of more than
15,000 patients worldwide in 2003 alone. That same year, its
doctors conducted 412 free vision screenings in Santa Barbara, and
conducted 27 eye surgeries. SEE boasts 700 affiliated volunteer eye
surgeons in 87 countries, with administrative and fundraising costs
consuming only 2.7 percent of its total donations.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.