Sherrie Kuns-Fehlman, a former employee of Grace Homes, filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in December, 2015. The complaint accused the CEO of Grace Homes, Phil Luna, of sexual harassment, physical assault and creating a hostile work environment.
On January 13 Phil Luna, along with his lawyer, Linda Jenner, sat down with the Valley Voice to present evidence and documents to demonstrate that no sexual harassment occurred.
A January 11 statement issued by the Board of Directors of Grace Homes states, “that a lengthy and thorough investigation of the allegations were made according to employment policy and procedures and that the findings of the investigative committee were, “’the Committee finds there was no sexual harassment by Phil Luna against Fehlman’ resulting in a unanimous decision of complete exoneration of the allegations against Mr. Luna.’”
Luna said that it would have been physically impossible for him to have assaulted Fehlman because they were never in the same place at the same time. He stated that, in fact, he was only in the same room with Fehlman on one occasion and it was in the company of her parents and an employee. According to Luna, a few days after he was hired in February, 2015, Gale and Glenda Kuns called him over for a meeting at their home located across from the Grace Homes office. While in their front room, Fehlman walked in and was introduced to Luna. Luna claims, beside one phone call from Fehlman, that was the first and last time they ever interacted.
Luna said that the last couple of weeks have been a hardship on his family and that the complaint will make future employment difficult because, “you can’t un-ring that bell.”
“I had to call my wife and speak to my kids that they may hear talk because of Fehlman’s accusations,” said Luna.
He and Jenner are considering filing a countersuit for defamation of character and malicious prosecution if Fehlman proceeds with her case.
Grace Homes was started in the 1980’s by husband and wife team, Gale and Glenda Kuns. They bought their first group home in the early 1980’s for $800 to help young mothers and their babies. The Kuns started out with six pregnant girls, but at the ministry’s height they had 11 homes with 85 beds, a foster center, and a boys’ home. Grace Ministries was the only place in the state that was licensed and had the personnel qualified to deal with the emotional needs of sex-trafficked pregnant girls and other victims of sexual abuse. Grace Homes could accept such high risk girls because Fehlman was a licensed forensic counselor among her many other social work capabilities.
Sherrie Kuns-Fehlman is the daughter of Gale and Glenda Kuns. Three generations of the family have worked at the ministry. Gale Kuns was the CEO of Grace Homes until he and his wife had to step down after settling with the State of California Department of Social Services in 2012 because of mismanagement.
The Investigation Begins
Fehlman claims the incidents took place in January and April of 2015. But Grace Homes’ lawyer, Steve Cameron, did not become aware of the accusations until July 10, during an email exchange with Fehlman. It was at that time, she told him she did not feel safe in Luna’s presence and explained why. As a result, Grace Homes board of directors appointed an investigative committee during their July 20 directors’ meeting to investigate Fehlman’s accusations.
The investigative committee was comprised of Grace Homes’ lawyer, Cameron, and two board members. They started their investigation in July and finished in December of 2015. The investigation included questionnaires sent out to 17 witnesses comprised of current and former employees. Ten of the 17 witnesses responded, including all of the current employees and one former employee, a former CEO. The investigation also includes a statement from Fehlman and a response from Luna.
According to Grace Homes employment policy and procedures, the “Complainant and Respondent will be interviewed first. A court reporter will be present to ensure accuracy. Any witnesses identified by either party will be interviewed. The board will also interview anyone that it believes may have knowledge on this issue.” Later the policy states that “At least one committee member will attend every interview.”
The Investigation’s Findings
Three major issues were used as the basis for finding that Luna was innocent of all charges. First, the committee investigation concluded that Luna and Fehlman were not at work together on the dates of the alleged harassment. Fehlman said that Luna touched her inappropriately and made inappropriate comments in January of 2015, but Luna did not start work at Grace Homes until February 25. Fehlman also claimed that the second and third incidents happened on April 23 and April 24, but none of the 10 witnesses who responded to the questionnaire said that she was present on the campus.
The Grace Homes Sexual Harassment report states, “The Committee finds that Luna …… was not present on the Grace Homes campus in January. Fehlman completely fabricated this event. The Committee further finds that Fehlman fabricated the events of April 23, 2015 for the reasons set forth above, the strongest being they were both present at the May 11 board meeting and no mention was made of any alleged harassment.”
Second, the committee found Fehlmen’s allegations of sexual harassment dubious because she did not report them. The committee found that the board of directors of Grace Homes did not learn of this allegation until July 10, 2015, nearly seven months after she claimed they happened.
Fehlman said, she did report the harassment to the CEO, Gale Kuns, on the evening of April 24, after the third incident. Because of health problems and being out of town, Kuns did not have an opportunity to address his daughter’s concerns until mid-May, when he fired Luna. As a result, a special board meeting was called on June 9, where Kuns claims he discussed with the board that Luna had not fulfilled his duties as CFO, had a gambling problem, and had assaulted his daughter. But the board meeting minutes, do not record that Kuns discussed anything of the sort, thereby refuting Fehlmans claims that she reported the abuse.
For this reason, the investigative committee found that, “there is no corporate record of Gale Kuns reporting this to anyone.”
Their third and most damning reason, according to the investigative committee, for finding Luna innocent revolves around the May 11 board of directors’ meeting. The report states, “The Committee notes that both Fehlman and Luna were present at the May 11 2015 meeting. If Fehlman was uncomfortable in Luna’s presence, then she would have said something at that meeting. Indeed, having been harassed by Luna and then being present at a board meeting, Fehlman should have reported the behavior then. She did not. The minutes indicate that Fehlman would be hired to provide training to staff. Since her hours at Grace Homes would be increased by this resolution and she was present, it is difficult to believe that Ms. Fehlman was fearful of being in Luna’s presence yet did not mention anything.”
Another accusation leveled at Luna was not part of the investigation, but was stated in the last article. The Kuns claimed he was sleeping on the job and having another woman in his office with the blinds drawn. Luna and Jenner wanted the interview with the Valley Voice to take place in his office so that I could see there was a glass door separating his office from his secretary’s office. This glass door between the two offices had no blinds and the secretary could easily see inside.
“The idea of closing the blinds is ridiculous and not possible,” Luna said.
Problems Surface with the Investigation
When discussing the investigative committee’s findings with John Sarsfield, one of Fehlman’s lawyers, he said, “Let me guess, the Grace Homes Board exonerated themselves?”
Methodological problems with the investigation start with the questionnaire distributed to the 17 witnesses. The questionnaire states, “When in calendar year 2013 do you recall first seeing Phil Luna on the Sumter Campus?” The year in question is 2015, not 2013, making the witnesses’ responses irrelevant concerning when Phil Luna was first present on the Grace Homes campus.
The next problem is the witnesses themselves. The questionnaire had to be signed at the bottom of the form, giving no opportunity for confidentiality. Fehlmen noted on her list of witnesses that Rosemary Berumen “was one employee that indicated her fear of telling the truth over fear and threats of being fired.” For that reason Fehlman, “sadly considers Rosemary a hostile witness” even though they worked closely together at Grace Homes.
Under these circumstances, if an employee did have information to implicate Luna as a perpetrator of sexual harassment, it is highly unlikely they would have divulged the details and then signed their name. Also, it would be obvious which employees did not participate, so it was no coincidence that all current employees named as witnesses filled out the questionnaire.
In addition, the four witnesses who could corroborate that Fehlman and Luna were indeed at Grace Homes at the same time on April 23 and 24, Katie Akin, Jocilyne Guzman Fel, Gale Kuns and Glenda Kuns, had been let go, or had quit, and did not fill out the questionnaire.
The next problem was the process. Grace Homes employment manual states that witnesses, complainant and respondent will be interviewed with a court reporter present to ensure accuracy. Yet no interviews took place. The Grace Homes Sexual Harassment Report states, “Since none of the witnesses who filled out questionnaires had witnessed any inappropriate actions between Fehlman and Luna, the Committee determined that no interviews were necessary with them. Since Fehlman would not sit for an interview and Luna’s response was lengthy and detailed, the committee determined that it did not need to interview him.”
Fehlman stopped cooperating with the investigation because she was fired on September 1. She was fired for insubordination because she did not want to be in the same work space as Luna.
The final problem lay with the committee members themselves. The committee leader was Steve Cameron, Grace Homes’ lawyer. He was also in charge of writing the final report, which could bring a bias since he represents the business.
Another committee member was the secretary responsible for taking the board meeting minutes. These minutes played a large role in finding Luna innocent. The investigative committee cites the June 9 board of directors meeting minutes as evidence that Gale Kuns did not tell the board that Luna had assaulted his daughter. But the minutes have a statement by long time board member Phil Mohr. The minutes say, “Phil Mohr expressed his concern about what was said about what was said about Phil Luna.” The sentence has the appearance of being doctored, and it is evident that something was said about Luna during the meeting and was not recorded or was removed.
Another problem with the minutes occurred at the May 11 board of directors’ meeting. The minutes show that Fehlman was present at the meeting along with Luna and did not confront Luna about his assaulting her. But she was only present at the beginning to cook the customary meal that is eaten during the meeting. After she had completed her duties she left.
No End in Sight
The documents provided by Luna and Jenner to the Valley Voice, clearly show Gale Kuns’ mismanagement of Grace Homes, and that Luna was not working for Grace Homes in January of 2015, the in-house investigative records could be flawed. When Cameron wrote that “the committee finds there was no sexual harassment by Phil Luna against Fehlman,” he based his findings on a flawed questionnaire, incomplete records, and a potentially biased group of witnesses and committee members, including himself.
The result does not prove Luna’s innocence or guilt. The verdict may be up to a jury. Fehlman has filed an EEOC complaint with the Federal Government, which approved her right to sue. Luna was served by the Feds on January 15.