New case builds on earlier defamation case filed by former HSUS policy analyst Jeffrey Thomas Jr.
WASHINGTON D.C.––Why is the Humane Society of the United States still defending alleged actions of former president Wayne Pacelle in court, along with alleged actions of other current and former HSUS staff undertaken to protect Pacelle from claims of sexual harassment?
Pacelle resigned as HSUS president on February 2, 2018, less than 24 hours after he had apparently survived a board-funded investigation of sexual harassment allegations brought against him by several female employees and ex-employees.
Several other then-high ranking employees of the Humane Society of the U.S. and HSUS subsidiaries left the organization during the next 18 months.
Some of the ex-HSUS staff followed Pacelle to the Animal Wellness Foundation, which he has headed since May 2018.
Plaintiff Thomas was at HSUS for eight months in 2017
The Animal Wellness Foundation and the Humane Society of the U.S. have no legal relationship. Neither appears to work with the other on campaigns.
Neither the Animal Wellness Foundation nor the Humane Society of the U.S. has actually been named in two lawsuits that appear to have put HSUS in the position of having to defend Pacelle and others who are no longer HSUS employees against claims originating in 2017, centering on how they allegedly handled claims of sexual harassment that former policy analyst Jeffrey Thomas Jr. avers he brought to their attention before being fired.
Thomas, an attorney, was an HSUS policy analyst from February 13, 2017 through November 8, 2017.
The Morgan Lewis law firm, perhaps best known for representing U.S. President Donald Trump, began investigating sexual harassment allegations involving Pacelle in December 2017, according to Chronicle of Philanthropy writer Marc Gunther.
Gunther made the investigation public knowledge on January 25, 2018.
Thomas v. Moreland
Thomas on February 19, 2020, more than two years after HSUS fired him, filed a defamation case against Crystal Moreland, who had been special assistant to Pacelle throughout Thomas’ brief tenure at HSUS.
Thomas in that case claims that he was fired because Moreland wrongly accused him of sexually harassing her, after he rejected her advances.
That case, “Thomas v. Moreland,” is essentially personal in nature, not directly involving significant alleged misuse of assets donated to the Humane Society of the U.S. to help animals. As such, “Thomas v. Moreland” would not by itself be within the ANIMALS 24-7 scope of coverage.
But “Thomas v. Moreland,” still pending and unresolved, led to a second case, “Jeffrey Thomas Jr. vs. Wayne Pacelle and Mike Markarian, Amanda Hungerford, Kate Karl, Becky Branzell, Sara Marshman, Sara Amundson, Rebecca Cary.”
“Maliciously used power & resources”?
All of the defendants in “Thomas v. Moreland” are either current or former employees of the Humane Society of the U.S. and/or subsidiaries.
This second case was filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on July 6, 2021.
“Thomas v. Pacelle et al” alleges that “Defendants are a group of executives and attorneys who conspired to hijack the charitable resources of HSUS and HSLF in order to protect then-HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle from Plaintiff’s repeated complaints about his [Pacelle’s] discrimination against women and his [Pacelle’s alleged] inappropriate relationship with his personal assistant, Crystal Moreland.
“Instead of taking action against CEO Pacelle based on Plaintiff’s repeated complaints,” the second lawsuit continues, “which were protected by the [HSUS] employee handbook and the D.C. Human Rights Act, Defendants maliciously used the power and resources of the charity they controlled or worked for to retaliate against Plaintiff.
Info obtained in deposition led to second case
“Defendants’ illegal actions became known to Plaintiff during discovery in Thomas v. Moreland,” the lawsuit “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” charges.
Specifically, “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” says, “Plaintiff first learned of information regarding Defendants’ conspiracy and the actions giving rise to the instant suit on July 27, 2020 during discovery in Thomas v. Moreland,” and additionally from Humane Society of the U.S. depositions taken on October 19 and 22, 2020 and June 15, 2021.
Like “Thomas v. Moreland,” much of “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” pertains to workplace interactions not directly involving use of donated charitable assets, though donated funds were used to pay the salaries of the plaintiff and all of the defendants.
The “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” allegations likely to most concern Humane Society of the U.S. donors and supporters include statements more than 35 paragraphs into the bill of particulars that, “Upon information and belief, some or all of the Defendants knew that Pacelle had been accused multiple times of sexual misconduct.
“Upon information and belief, some or all of the Defendants knew that HSUS had used charitable dollars to pay settlements to employees alleging retaliation.”
“Used HSUS to recruit & groom”
Further, “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” alleges that “CEO Pacelle used the Humane Society [of the U.S.] to recruit and groom sexual prospects and victims, retaliate against whistleblowers, and air sad commercials about animal abuse to fundraise for charitable dollars to ‘help animals’ that were used to pay settlements to his victims through the HSUS Office of General Counsel.”
“Thomas v. Pacelle et al” additionally alleges that, “Pacelle promoted to positions of power executives who facilitated his sexual abuse, retaliation, and hush money settlements.”
A later paragraph of “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” offers a more detailed summary of plaintiff Thomas’ charges:
“Upon information and belief, three HSUS Office of General Counsel attorneys, then-CEO Wayne Pacelle, then-COO Mike Markarian, and HSLF President Sara Amundson were aware of Pacelle’s serial sexual misconduct; of Plaintiff’s repeated complaints about Pacelle’s inappropriate relationship with his assistant; had a duty under the employee handbook to investigate Plaintiff’s claims and not retaliate against him; did not investigate Pacelle’s misconduct but used charitable dollars to retaliate against Plaintiff by ordering IT and security employees to secretly investigate and surveil Plaintiff’s private life and personal phone; engaged in a defamatory retaliation scheme against Plaintiff by representing him as a ‘mole’ or security threat who was bugging the office; fired Plaintiff on the pretense that he was sexually harassing [Pacelle’s personal assistant Amanda] Moreland despite evidence showing that he [plaintiff Thomas] rejected her advances; promoted Moreland; used charitable dollars to pay her legal bills; then selected litigators to litigate ‘Thomas v. Moreland’ pro bona as a shield to cover up the retaliation scheme for three years.”
Can Thomas prove it?
Of course anyone can claim anything in filing a lawsuit. The test of the validity of claims made comes before a judge and jury, after the plaintiff presents evidence and testimony in support of whatever allegations have been made.
Neither “Thomas v. Moreland” nor “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” has come to trial yet. Neither case appears likely to come to trial soon.
Both cases may face pre-emptory challenges.
Either case, or both, may be dismissed ahead of a trial, should a judge find the documentary evidence offered by Thomas insufficient to support a plausible argument.
“Lawsuit has no merit,” says Pacelle
Both Pacelle and the Humane Society of the U.S. have indicated to ANIMALS 24-7 that they do not expect “Thomas v. Pacelle et al” to advance to trial.
Emailed Pacelle, “This lawsuit has no merit substantively or procedurally. The complainant, who is acting as his own lawyer, asserts contrived claims for his few months at HSUS in 2017 as an entry-level, at-will employee. His time at HSUS ended in termination following an investigation of workplace complaints against him.”
HSUS: firing Thomas “was the right call”
Emailed Humane Society of the U.S. senior director of media relations Anna West, in response to questions that ANIMALS 24-7 initially asked of HSUS president Kitty Block and Humane Society Legislative Fund president Sara Amundson, “Mr. Thomas was fired after a number of female staff reported concerns about his behavior.
“During Mr. Thomas’ brief employment with the HSUS in 2017,” West wrote, “staff reported his unwelcome conduct. His allegations that he made complaints of sexism or sexual harassment by our former CEO [Pacelle] are absurd on their face. We are not aware of Mr. Thomas filing any complaints about sexism or sexual harassment at HSUS. It was not until years after his own conduct was investigated and his employment at HSUS terminated—indeed, not until after he filed his defamation lawsuit—that Mr. Thomas even claimed to have made such complaints. Based on what was found in our investigation into the women’s concerns about Mr. Thomas, we’re confident that ending Mr. Thomas’ employment was the right call.”
Neither Thomas nor HSUS has followed the usual script
ANIMALS 24-7 observed that neither plaintiff Thomas nor the Humane Society of the U.S. appears to have followed the usual script in alleged wrongful dismissal cases.
Normally a plaintiff in any sort of case, including a wrongful dismissal case, sues the deepest pockets possible, hoping to get the largest possible payout, either in pretrial settlement or in judgement.
The Humane Society Legislative Fund arm of the Humane Society of the United States, not either Moreland, Pacelle, or any of the other named individual defendants, was Thomas’ actual employer.
That Thomas has so far named neither the Humane Society Legislative Fund nor the Humane Society of the United States as a defendant is, to say the least, unconventional.
HSUS has the most money, yet has not been named
The Humane Society of the United States has by far the most money of any of the defendants who might have been named, and as a corporation with substantial assets, would have the most motivation to settle with a big payout to avoid further losses, whereas named individuals––in almost any case––might potentially be forced into bankruptcy by any big judgement against them.
Should that occur, the plaintiff, in this case Thomas, would have incurred years of trouble and expense in waging a lawsuit to win only a symbolic victory.
Further, only the Humane Society of the U.S. and/or the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund could attempt to resolve the allegations of wrongful dismissal by restoring Thomas to employment, with back pay and benefits.
None of the individual plaintiffs have jurisdiction to undertake any such action except through, and with the consent of, the Humane Society of the U.S. and/or the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund as corporate entities.
Beyond all that, naming only individuals and not the former employer(s) in a wrongful dismissal case tends to look more like a personal vendetta than a serious effort to recover actual material damages.
Why has HSUS stepped in?
But the HSUS response to the two Thomas cases also appears decidedly unconventional.
Normally a company whose employees are sued for doing something stands clear of a case, if it possibly can. The standard defense is along the lines that the employee actions were done as individuals, not in their capacity as employees or under employer instructions.
In both of the two Thomas cases, moreover, the Humane Society of the U.S. and subsidiaries started out free and clear of liability and cause for involvement because only individuals were named as plaintiffs.
However, in defending “Thomas v. Moreland” on behalf of Moreland, HSUS seems to acknowledge a responsibility to Moreland, accepting that her actions, whatever they were, were undertaken in connection with her employment.
The same reasoning would appear to apply to HSUS defending other individuals in “Thomas v. Pacelle et al,” possibly including Pacelle himself.
And what has HSUS stepped in?
Emailed Thomas to ANIMALS 24-7, “My understanding is that many or all of the defendants are covered by HSUS’ insurance plan.”
Before “Thomas v. Moreland” was filed, Thomas indicated, “I offered Moreland a settlement in 2017 in which she would tell the truth, apologize, pay my modest legal bills, and help me get my job back.”
After Moreland refused, Thomas said, “I filed ‘Thomas v Moreland’ based on what had been represented to me as true at the time: a one-count defamation case.
“HSUS as a corporate entity has been litigating this case for a long time,” Thomas continued. [HSUS] general counsel Kate Karl is on the [HSUS] board and a defendant [in Thomas v. Pacelle et al], and it will be very interesting to hear her explain her conduct under oath. We will present the facts to the court and jury and they can decide.”
Thomas: “Limits to what I can discuss”
If HSUS as a corporate entity is to be held legally responsible for anything, however, HSUS will have to be named as a defendant, either in an amended motion or in a whole new lawsuit, for which Thomas v. Pacelle et al might be a preliminary, much as was Thomas v. Moreland, filed in an attempt to produce further evidence via discovery.
Asked about this by ANIMALS 24-7, Thomas said “I reserve all rights to ask for further relief in the event that this is not just a handful of bad apples.”
Currently, Thomas told ANIMALS 24-7, “There are limits to what I can discuss regarding that case given there is a protective order and some documents are under seal. HSUS is using a protective order,” Thomas charged, “to keep from the public every word of their own deposition.”
According to Thomas, “It is a clear conflict in defendants’ interests to conflate themselves with HSUS, which is not a defendant, and to have charitable funds purportedly raised to help animals pay the legal bills of individuals and even a disgraced former executive.
“The board as a legal fiduciary,” Thomas opined, “should be concerned to the degree that charitable resources have been used as a slush fund to cover up individuals’ violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act and thus subjected HSUS to liability or even potentially losing its tax-exempt status, in an extreme case.
Did HSUS board take effective corrective action, or just play defense?
“If I were on the board,” Thomas added, “I would be asking serious questions about why complaints were not investigated.”
In counterpoint to that, the HSUS board did in fact hire the law firm Morgan Lewis before the end of 2017 to investigate whatever sexual harassment issues had been raised against Pacelle and other employees.
Then, while the HSUS board did not terminate Pacelle, Pacelle terminated himself. Several other personnel who had also held senior positions under Pacelle resigned between the beginning of the Morgan Lewis investigation and when the appointment of current HSUS president Kitty Block as interim replacement for Pacelle was made permanent five months later.
The HSUS board also undertook a variety of other actions meant to ensure that there would be no repetition of the circumstances surrounding Pacelle’s departure.
So far, in the few years since then, nothing similar has surfaced. But nothing similar surfaced, either, for the first dozen years that Pacelle was HSUS president.
Thomas’ lawsuits purport to reveal that this was because of a series of cover-ups and payoffs to other potential plaintiffs.
The big question, again, is can Thomas prove it?