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Lawsuit alleges harassment, neglect at Petco

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Plaintiff alleges animal cruelty

By Rob Mitchell, Executive Editor

A former employee of the Petco store in Novato has filed a lawsuit against the store and its manager, alleging sexual harassment, wrongful termination and retaliation.

Catherine Lindblom, a Petco employee from October of 2005 to May 2006, is seeking restitution for emotional damages and punitive damages. Petco says its own investigation found no evidence supporting any of her claims. Lindblom says she was sexually harassed in the Novato store and discovered abuse and neglect of animals in the San Rafael store, and was fired because she complained about both. "It's a sexual harassment case that resulted in whistle blowing on the incredibly terrible conditions for the animals," said Lindblom's lawyer, Angela Alioto. "It's more to do with her punishment than to do with the sexual harassment."

Alioto offered mediation to Petco, but the company refused settlement, she said.

"Our investigation revealed that the allegations were not substantiated or corroborated by others," said Don Cowan, a Petco spokesman. "And that she did not raise any animal-care concerns until months after she left the company." According to the lawsuit filed in Marin County Superior Court, in February of 2006 Novato store manager James Armlin began to hug Lindblom, rub her shoulders from behind, and make suggestive comments. Over the next few months he repeatedly touched her on the buttock, brushed against her breasts and caressed her hand, Lindblom says, unwelcome advances that made her feel uncomfortable and humiliated.

Then, according to the lawsuit, in late April of 2006, Armlin pushed her against a filing cabinet and tried to kiss her, Lindblom said. After breaking out in hives and throwing up later that day, she filed a complaint with Petco's human resources department. On May 1, she was transferred to the San Rafael Petco store while the store's human resources investigated her complaint, she says. Lindblom states she found widespread abuse and neglect of animals while working in the San Rafael store's infirmary, including starving snakes, lizards and turtles, a rodent eating one snake alive, a snake that had been dead so long it had to be peeled from the cage floor and cages that had not been cleaned in several days. These allegations have spurred an investigation by the Marin Humane Society (MHS). "Officers visited the store on Saturday. We are going to be continuing to monitor the Marin stores," said MHS spokeswoman Sheri Cardo. "It's really important that people understand that if they ever see abuse and neglect that they call us immediately. These reports were a few months old. We investigate every complaint." Lindblom told the San Rafael store manager of the neglect, was again ill from stress, and asked for time off after about a week working at the store, with a doctor's recommendation. She had already taken seven sick days prior to her transfer. She was fired on May 31. Novato employee relations management consultant Larry Levy said 95 percent of this type of case are settled out of court. "Only the most egregious ones, where there's a lot of notoriety, go to trial," he said. "It's a very lengthy process. It's very expensive." The median judgment in sexual harassment cases in California is about $500,000, Levy said. For now, both sides of the case will likely be investigating the facts in advance of a settlement or trial. "At some point in time, after each side knows what the other one has," Levy said, "typically the employer's attorney will sit down with the plaintiff's attorney and say �What will it take to make this go away?'"


Humane Society probes Petco following ex-worker's lawsuit

Jennifer Upshaw

Article Launched: 01/05/2007 12:41:57 AM PST

A lawsuit by a former employee alleging sexual harassment and animal cruelty against the Petco pet supply chain has triggered a Marin Humane Society investigation at the San Rafael store.

Catherine Lindblom, a former manager who worked at Petco stores in Novato and San Rafael, is suing the company claiming sexual harassment, wrongful termination and emotional distress. She claims she was punished after reporting inappropriate touching at the Novato store and deplorable conditions for the animals at the San Rafael store.

"You never punish a person for exercising their civil rights, you just don't do it," said San Francisco attorney Angela Alioto, who is representing Lindblom. "Retaliation are the easiest cases to win before a jury because everyone can relate to exercising a right and being punished for it."

The allegations follow a May 2004 ruling in which Petco Animal Supplies Inc. was ordered to pay more than $850,000 as well as clean up its cages in the two Marin stores and in other California counties as part of the settlement of a consumer protection lawsuit.

That lawsuit, filed by district attorneys in Marin, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, alleged that Petco charged customers more than the advertised prices and that the employees responsible for animals did not properly care for them.

According to the latest lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Marin Superior Court, Lindblom was repeatedly harassed in May 2006 while employed at the Novato store. Lindblom accuses James Armlin, general manager and her direct supervisor, of touching her breasts and buttocks, putting his hand on her knee, and pushing her up against a file cabinet and attempting to kiss her. Armlin declined comment.

After complaining to the company, Lindblom said she was transferred to the San Rafael store, where she discovered widespread neglect of the animals.

According to the suit, conditions included reptiles dead in cages, starving reptiles, reptiles covered in mites, wild rodents infiltrating cages and eating other reptiles alive, turtles and iguanas with no food or water and starving guinea pigs cannibalizing each other. In one case, a snake had been dead so long it had to be peeled off the bottom of the cage. An employee had claimed the snake was alive and healthy that day, according to the suit.

"She got to the Petco store there, it has all these dead animals in cages," Alioto said of Lindblom, who runs a reptile rescue and rehabilitation service out of her home. "She couldn't take it."

Lindblom complained and asked for a few days' leave for stress. She said she had broken out in hives and repeatedly thrown up after the incident at the file cabinet. In response to her complaints, Lindblom said she was threatened when officials pointed out she had an excessive number of sick days, which could cost her her job, the suit claims.

While she was off, letters arrived at her home urging her to file for family leave. She informed the company she planned to return to work immediately. At that point, she was fired, she said.

Company officials said the allegations were unfounded.

"(This is) a disgruntled former employee bringing forward allegations that we believe are unsubstantiated and will be vigorously defended," said Kevin Whalen, Petco spokesman. "This is really about how she abandoned her job."

The Humane Society, as the licensing agency for stores that sell pets, also inspects the businesses annually. In 2004, the inspectors found animals that were malnourished and ill, and cages that were not clean.

"Any time there are concerns at any animal-care facility we take that very seriously," said Cindy Machado, animal services director. "Petco does have a history. � Having this information (about the latest lawsuit) gives us grave concern about what's going on at the store.

"We will initiate our own investigation."

Petco officials said the company is on heightened alert for poor animal care.

"I would say that these are allegations," Whalen said of the recent lawsuit. "The circumstances in 2004 triggered a very rigorous and companywide focus on animal care. That remains in place today.

"We have across the country very strong animal-care commitments and people to hold ourselves accountable to."

Anyone who suspects animal cruelty is urged to report violators to the Marin Humane Society at 883-4621


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