Scotts Valley City Hall
Scotts Valley City Hall (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Kristin Ard, a longtime municipal worker who’s been battling cancer, is suing the City of Scotts Valley for disability discrimination.

Known affectionately around town as “Kard,” she was at the helm of the Recreation Division since taking over from Conrad Sudduth in 2012.

Back then, according to a Press Banner article at the time, the City decided it didn’t want to fill her vacated position, so Ard continued to serve as the senior recreation specialist, even as she became the head of the department.

Eventually, the pandemic roiled the City’s finances, and the recreation division was dismantled. And when things returned to normal, the division did not.

Instead, many of its functions were handed-off to consultants to manage.

Ard claims that when she sought to continue working for her employer, she was instead forced out the door.

On Jan. 1, she filed a lawsuit in Santa Cruz County Superior Court accusing Scotts Valley of seven torts: disability discrimination, failure to prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation, violating the California Fair Housing Act, retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, failure to engage in a good faith interactive process, and failure to provide reasonable job accommodations.

The City declined to comment for this story.

In 2021, Scotts Valley beat its neighbors to the punch when it brought back Fourth of July celebrations in-person before almost anyone else.

Councilmember Donna Lind, who spearheaded the effort, was quick to credit Ard for her exceptional initiative, despite being in the middle of cancer treatment.

“She’s been a tremendous help with a lot of experience and knowledge,” Lind told the Press Banner. “She loves the community and loves the people. She’s outstanding. We’re all praying that she makes a full recovery and is able to come back to work. In the meantime, she is not slowing down that much.”

Ard helped design the flyer, ordered equipment and marched in the parade with her mom, alongside Jason Goldberg of A Sign ASAP, to raise awareness about cancer and to promote organ donation. She was even caught working from a medical bed.

“I just came from two doctors’ appointments—I’m draggin’ a little bit,” Ard cheerfully admitted, when asked about her impressive drive by this newspaper. “I know, it’s insane.”

Councilmember Donna Lind (left) and Kristin Ard worked together to pull off Fourth of July festivities in 2021. That year, Ard marched to raise awareness about cancer. (File Photo)

According to the lawsuit, that’s the same week Ard was cleared to work up to eight hours per week, and the City allowed her to return—and didn’t ask her to complete a fitness exam or for additional documentation besides the doctor’s note.

Tina Friend, who was the City manager, “questioned the veracity and credibility of Mrs. Ard’s disability,” the Complaint states, adding that shortly afterward, her coworkers stopped talking to her. “Mrs. Ard later learned that her boss had instructed other employees not to communicate with her.”

Friend who is now the city manager for Coronado, in San Diego County, did not respond to a request for comment.

In September 2021, Ard’s doctor cleared her to work up to 16 hours per week. According to the suit, the City would only approve this if she handed-in fitness-for-duty and reasonable accommodation forms, and she continued working eight hours a week.

“By this time, she was feeling isolated and ostracized at work because nobody would talk to her,” the lawsuit states. “Mrs. Ard was being excluded from meetings and not allowed to work on various projects despite having the requisite knowledge, skills and experience.”

The stress only made her disability worse, and by December 2021, her doctor found she was unable to even work those eight hours, and she took a medical leave of absence (MLOA), her lawyer says.

On Jan. 24, 2022, Ard and her husband met with the incoming City manager, Mali LaGoe, Administrative Services Director Casey Estorga and HR representative Amanda Armstrong, but Scotts Valley’s new guard tried to push her into retirement, according to the suit.

“Mrs. Ard voiced her desire to return to work and sought to discuss working a modified work schedule as she had done previously. Mr. Estorga and the other City representatives were not willing to discuss return-to-work options,” it states. “Mrs. Ard also inquired about long term disability benefits; namely, if she would still be able to receive health care benefits from the City if she applied for long term disability.”

Her lawyer says the City never answered the question, even after she followed-up.

Instead, Estorga sent Ard a letter on March 11, 2022, claiming her doctors’ notes weren’t good enough, and she needed to complete additional paperwork within a week, Ard claims. That’s when she lawyered-up.

Estorga, who now works as the administrative services director for Hollister, declined to comment for this story.

Ard’s doctor said she could work four hours a day, up to 20 hours per week in an office-type setting, starting as soon as March 18, 2022, according to the Complaint.

And with the help of her legal counsel, Ard had the extra requested paperwork submitted by March 23, 2022, she says, adding the City blocked her from coming back.

“In other words, despite knowing that Mrs. Ard could work with reasonable accommodations, the City refused to allow her to return to work and kept her on an involuntary MLOA for an indefinite period of time,” the lawsuit reads.

Lisa Peck appeared in court on May 2 on behalf of her client, Kristin Ard, who claims she was discriminated against by the City of Scotts Valley. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Estorga sent Ard a letter, May 3, titled “Notice of Intended Medical Separation and Conclusion of the Interactive Process,” denying the reasonable accommodation request.

“Defendant now claimed that full-time work is an essential function of the Recreation Division Manager position, and that no other part-time positions were available nor would be available in the near future,” the suit states.

Once again, Ard was working from a healthcare facility in the lead-up to Independence Day. This time, she wasn’t planning a parade. She was fighting for her job, she says.

“On May 6, 2022, Plaintiff responded to Defendant’s May 3, 2022 letter, indicating she was in the hospital due to an unanticipated and sudden major surgery that took place on April 29, 2022,” the Complaint reads. “She requested more time to respond to the notice.”

She got her mom, Pegi Ard, to request a month-long unpaid leave of absence on her behalf, but despite her post-surgery prognosis looking “promising,” Estorga denied the unpaid leave request pending further documentation, the lawsuit states.

So, she went back to get another note from her medical provider, explaining she’d just had a liver transplant April 29.

“We expect she will be able to return to work full-time in her administrative position in 4-6 weeks from today,” she said in her official June 3 letter. “If you have any questions, feel free to give me a call.”

On June 8, 2022, Estorga fired her for medical reasons, effective in two days (June 10), stating it would be “unfeasible operationally for the City to extend [Plaintiff’s] leave of absence, even if for only four to six weeks,” the Complaint reads.

He also claimed they needed to fill the recreation division manager position immediately with a full-time employee, Ard’s lawyer said.

Ard “successfully recovered from her transplant and was able to return to work full-time 6 weeks after her transplant” and, at that point, “still had remaining unused time off on the books,” according to the lawsuit.

On May 2, after battling traffic on Mission Street, Ard’s lawyer, Lisa Peck descended into the basement of the courthouse in Santa Cruz, to appear before Timothy Schmal.

“This is a new case,” said Schmal, remarking on how Scotts Valley had not requested a dispute resolution process.

Peck replied that the parties are in the middle of discovery. She told the Press Banner that the hearing was a scheduling conference to draw-up a “roadmap” for how the litigation will go.

Schmal set the next hearing for Aug. 1, in Department 10, and requested case statements be submitted a week in advance.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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