Lawsuit accuses Cuesta College of harassment, retaliation after whistleblower complaint

A Cuesta College employee is suing the community college for unlawful retaliation, alleging supervisors and coworkers discriminated and harassed him after he reported them for participating in “unlawful activities” on campus, a lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit filed in November, Andrew Kranes claims his supervisors and coworkers harassed him and his family to the point he became depressed, his wife suffered panic attacks and his children developed night terros, social anxiety and a “phobia of public restrooms.”

Kranes had worked at Cuesta as a general maintenance worker since October 2016, the lawsuit said. According to Shannon Hill, spokesperson for Cuesta, Kranes is still employed at the college.

According to the lawsuit, Kranes says the harassment began because he contacted the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s Office in November 2021 alleging “several events that had caused his concern,” but saying he “was too fearful he would lose his CalPERS retirement if he made a complaint.” An official report was filed on Jan. 3, 2022.

According to the lawsuit, the District Attorney’s Office told Kranes he was protected from retaliation from Cuesta under California’s whistleblower statute, a law that shields employees who report labor violations from retribution.

Two months after the complaint was filed, Kranes received his first negative performance review — one of the first of several instances he claims amounted to retaliation for his report.

Hill told The Tribune the college does not comment on pending litigation. The college has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

Lawsuits only represent one side of a dispute.

Cuesta employees were unlawfully using public resources, lawsuit alleges

According to the lawsuit, Kranes’ complaint to the District Attorney’s Office alleged Cuesta’s director of facilities, Brian McAlister, and plumbing associate Sean Frazier had been taking work vehicles home every day instead of driving their personal vehicles and having their mileage compensated for — a option only allowed if the employee lives more than 50 miles from campus — while also using the Cuesta gas pump to fill the vehicles.

McAlister lives in Atascadero — roughly 20 miles from campus — but took the vehicle home because he was “on-call,” the lawsuit says.

Kranes also reported that a Cuesta shop mechanic repaired human resources employee Stephanie Federico’s personal vehicle with Cuesta parts and tools, the lawsuit said. Melissa Richerson, Cuesta vice president of human resources and labor relations and Kranes’ supervisor, is also alleged to have asked Kranes to repair her personal vehicle using Cuesta resources, to which Kranes declined.

Kranes “had reasonable cause to believe Cuesta was mishandling public funds in violation of the law and its District’s own board policy,” the lawsuit said.

According to San Luis Obispo County Community College District’s board policy, “no trustee shall use or permit others to use public resources, except that which is incidental and minimal, for personal purposes or any other purpose not authorized by law.”

Then on March 11, 2022, Richerson gave Kranes a “less than satisfactory” performance evaluation — his first in his five years of employment — and placed him on a performance improvement plan.

Mikulka told Kranes she believed the review was retaliatory, the lawsuit said.

A week later on March 17, 2022, Richerson accused Kranes of taking photos of Preston Federico, the husband of Stephanie Federico and also a general maintenance worker at Cuesta, at the college pool.

Kranes denied this allegation.

The district completed its investigation on April 13, 2022, and said that while it believes Kranes made the report in good faith, the evidence did not support the allegations of retaliation, the lawsuit said.

According to the complaint, the District Attorney’s Office completed its investigation on May 12, 2022, but could not finish the report because the agency never received a report from Cuesta’s president, Jill Stearns.

Lawsuit: Employee followed coworker’s wife to bathroom while she was with kids

Harassment against Kranes and his family escalated in May 2022, the lawsuit said.

On May 11, 2022, Kranes’ wife Harmony was in the Cuesta parking lot to transfer their two children — 3 and 5 years old — when Preston Federico accused Harmony of giving him the middle finger.

Kranes told Federico his wife’s hand was in a cast due to a surgery the month prior, the lawsuit said, and Federico told Kranes he needed to “teach that b---h some manners.”

Harmony Kranes reported the incident to the Cuesta Police Department and Cuesta Student Services the following day.

Cuesta College Assistant Superintendent and Vice President Elizabeth Coria emailed Kranes on May 13, 2022, and accused his wife of making an obscene gesture to Federico on May 11 and filming another employee on May 3, accusing Kranes of retaliation.

The lawsuit said Coria believed Federico’s account at face value and dismissed Harmony Kranes’ previous police report. The lawsuit claims Harmony was never given Coria’s contact information or an opportunity to speak with her.

On June 23, 2022, the lawsuit said, union representatives told Kranes he needed to “drop it” when it came to what Federico said about his wife and told him that McAlister, the director of facilities Kranes accused of misusing a work vehicle, was “attempting to create a pattern of incompetence against him to use for his dismissal.”

Then, on July 11, Federico drove slowly past Harmony as she backed out of a parking spot at the public pool parking lot, where she was exchanging cars and children with her husband, leaned out the window of his work vehicle “intently staring at her” and “flipped her off.” Kranes witnessed the incident in the parking spot next to her with his two children.

Harassment, including following, gesturing, staring and taking videos and photos, continued all summer as the Kranes’ children continued to take swim lessons. The behavior made Harmony and her children “extremely uncomfortable and fearful,” but concerns were repeatedly dismissed by Richerson and McAlister, the lawsuit claims.

On July 15, 2022, the lawsuit said, a lifeguard approached Harmony and told her that her son said “‘that bad man’ was bothering his mom.” The lawsuit claims Harmony was visibly shaking and anxious because Preston Federico was video-recording and gesturing to her and her children before the lesson.

As Harmony and her children left the pool to change in the women’s restroom, she noticed Federico exiting his truck and beginning to follow her, the lawsuit said. She turned away “panicking,” put her phone in selfie mode and began recording herself walking away from Federico as he continued his pursuit, holding out his phone recording her, according to the suit.

She froze when she got to the corner of the parking lot and the women’s restroom because she wanted to stay visible and did not feel safe entering either. Federico then reportedly walked past her and entered the women’s restroom. When Federico exited the restroom and Harmony asked him what he was doing, he smirked and told her he was “doing work,” the lawsuit said.

Harmony immediately reported the incident to police and was told by an officer they were unable to help, but the officer later told her in an email that he would make an incident report to document her concerns.

The next day, the lawsuit said, Coria emailed Harmony to inform her that Federico made a formal accusation against her alleging harassment on the basis of marital status, but Coria could not clarify what Federico meant by the allegation.

The Kraneses’ children were “too traumatized” by the incident to attend their final swim lesson two days later, the lawsuit said.

Children develop phobias, severe anxiety, following harassment at Cuesta College, lawsuit claims

On Aug. 5, 2022, Kranes emailed Cuesta College Assistant Superintendent and Vice President Dan Troy a detailed list of actions by the district in hopes of mediating the situation, including a document labeled “confidential.” This file was forwarded to 151 unique IP addresses without Kranes’ authorization, the lawsuit alleged.

On Aug. 26, 2022, the lawsuit said, Kranes was “berated” by Richerson and McAlister and told there was no improvement on his performance improvement plan.

Then, on Sept. 19, 2022, McAlister emailed Kranes that he had two reprimands — one of which allegedly occurred four months prior, the lawsuit said. During a meeting regarding the reprimands, the lawsuit said, Kranes was accused of taking an unauthorized break.

On Feb. 11, 2023, Kranes said Richerson “excessively questioned” him about overtime he took in December 2022, despite photos that proved he was there.

The harassment the Kraneses faced took a severe emotional toll, the lawsuit said.

Andrew Kranes became depressed, and Harmony didn’t feel comfortable leaving her house with her children for a year, according to the lawsuit. She had to drop out of her involvement in her son’s school because of panic attacks and sever social anxiety.

The lawsuit said their son has nightmares about the man that was “following Mommy to hurt her” and developed a severe phobia of public restrooms to the point he got a urinary tract infection that caused him to miss a week of school because he refused to go to the bathroom. Now he has severe anxiety around not urinating and causes disruptions in class to use the toilet every 20 minutes, the lawsuit said.

Their daughter also developed a fear of bathrooms, the lawsuit said, and refuses to go unless her mother escorts her. Their daughter also had night terrors for four months following the incident with Federico, the lawsuit said.

This severe anxiety around bathrooms did not exist before the incident with Federico, the lawsuit said.

Both children experience negative changes in behavior with social anxiety that did not exist prior, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asks suing “for an amount to be proved at trial.” The next case management conference is scheduled for April 15.