Kerrin Conklin was hired in January as executive director of the CNYSPCA. Here, she poses with Boston terrier mix Holly in front of a banner with the CNYSPCA’s new slogan, “New beginnings.” (Photo by Ashley M. Casey)
Former CNY SPCA Executive Director Kerrin Conklin is suing the organization’s board of directors and its medical director for wrongful termination, defamation and breach of contract.
Conklin’s suit, filed July 31 in New York State Supreme Court, seeks $4.1 million in damages against CNY SPCA board members Carole Marsh, Nicholas Pirro, Patricia Romano, Kevin Fallis, Jack Yoffa, Sandra Bennett, Harold Brown III, Greg Herlihy, Merrissa Butz, Tracey McLean, Nicholas Jacobson, Danielle Cunningham-Tarantino, Robin Watkins and Monica Williams, as well as Dr. Stacy Laxen, a Cicero-based veterinarian who has provided services to the shelter.
“The conduct of each defendant named above was so extreme and outrageous so as to go beyond the bounds of common decency,” the complaint reads, “and that was such that the conduct can be considered utterly intolerable as it was performed for the purpose of causing harm to the plaintiff and insulating the defendants from financial harm and utterly disregarding her reputation and emotional wellbeing.”
Conklin’s accusations go back to the time before she became the shelter’s director, when she volunteered at the SPCA from August 2013 to November of 2015. During that period, the complaint alleges “many of the animals were being neglected or ignored,” receiving insufficient veterinary care, being euthanized for “little reason,” being fed inadequate provisions and living in poor building conditions.
While those conditions can be blamed on the mismanagement of former Executive Director Paul Morgan, who pled guilty in March to embezzling more than $500,000 from the shelter, Conklin asserts that the culture of unprofessionalism and unaccountability created during his tenure lasted well after his departure.
In particular, Conklin blames the perpetuation of that culture on Pirro, who served as treasurer of the board during Morgan’s tenure then took over as interim director after Morgan’s removal.
“This individual has been the treasurer of the CNY SPCA during the entire reign of Morgan and his pillaging of the nonprofit’s precious resources,” the complaint reads. “For reasons that are not clear, Pirro was not sanctioned or otherwise held accountable for his failure to discover the mismanagement and thefts…. Even after the discovery of the financial mismanagement of Morgan, [he] still failed to properly and thoroughly review financial records.”
The complaint alleges Pirro also allowed the same pattern of animal neglect that existed under Morgan to continue.
“The absence of employee management continued to be visible everywhere under the interim administration, because no one employee was charged with the duty to oversee the care of the animals or direct the efforts of staff or volunteers, who continued to be provided with little instruction or guidance,” the complaint reads.
Conklin came on board as executive director in January, signing a two-year contract at a salary of $75,000 a year. According to her complaint, she had an agenda that included improving the shelter’s financial management and its image in the community, creating a euthanasia policy, revising the adoption policy and making the hours of operation more accommodating to the public. She alleges that both the board and the employees did little to help in that regard, citing issues with employee oversight, proposed changes to the facility and specific employees.
However, Conklin specifically blames Laxen for her termination. The suit notes Laxen’s experience as a private practice physician with no specific training as a shelter vet, making a point to state that she is the veterinarian of record for the Cicero Petland store (shelters and animal rights groups oppose Petland’s acquisition of puppies from “puppy mills”). The complaint is highly critical of Laxen’s veterinary skills, accusing her of misdiagnosing or even neglecting animals. Conklin alleges Laxen caused the outbreak of ringworm that ultimately led to the May 17 euthanization of 17 cats at the shelter.
According to the complaint, Laxen resented Conklin’s questioning of her authority and began pushing the board to get rid of her. The euthanasia of the cats, the complaint alleges, was just an excuse: “Conklin was unaware that communications had already taken place between some board members and Laxen, that deals had already been struck, and that her fate had already been sealed.” Conklin asserts that Laxen lied about the euthanasia incident as well as a number of other things, and, despite Conklin’s assertion that the board, in particular Board President Carole Marsh, had expressed “great pleasure” with Conklin’s work, the board “colluded” with her to fire Conklin.
Among the other accusations in the suit:
In addition to the damages, Conklin seeks to be reinstated as executive director.
In a statement, Conklin said she has no intention of taking money away from the animals at the SPCA; any money awarded would come from the board’s insurance. If she is awarded any damages and reinstated, she said, she’ll put the money back into the shelter. If she is not reinstated but awarded damages, the money will be donated to another local animal shelter.
“Please know that it’s not about the money and never has been,” Conklin said in her statement. “It is entirely about the job and the animals. My complaint is with the board as well as the veterinarian… I would instantly waive every penny of damages claimed against the board to have that job back.”
Laxen has not responded to requests for comment. Pirro declined to respond, directing requests for comment to the attorneys for the board at Bousquet Holstein.
Related: Read Kerrin Conklin’s letter to the editor.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club’s Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.