After 11 months of allegedly being “hazed” by Public Works staff, former deputy county counsel Cathie Childs is preparing to sue the County of Humboldt and her former supervisors — County Counsel Scott Miles and Assistant County Counsel Natalie Duke — for wrongful termination. Childs is seeking $1.4 million in damages.

Cathie Childs

Childs, who is being represented by local attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson, claims her superiors and Public Works staff consistently undermined her legal authority and instructed her to go against her own legal judgment, putting the county at unnecessary risk. Childs pushed back against the county’s “continuing pattern of bad behavior” during her time as deputy county counsel but was ultimately fired for doing so, according to the Claim for Damages.

The County of Humboldt declined to comment on the allegations detailed in this story, citing pending litigation.

“This matter is important to the county; however, this is potentially a legal matter, and we want to preserve the integrity of that process,” county spokesperson Cati Gallardo wrote in an email to the Outpost. “As such, we will not be able to discuss this topic with the press further at this time.”

“Disrespectful and Inappropriate Criticisms”

After practicing law in Texas for the better part of 30 years, most recently representing local governments in the Austin area, Childs applied and interviewed for the deputy county counsel position with the County of Humboldt in September 2021. 

In a Sept. 9 email to the County Administrative Office (CAO), then County Counsel Jefferson Billingsley said Childs would be “an excellent fit for [the] office,” noting her “extensive experience and history with government law,” and requested permission to offer her the job “as soon as possible,” according to the claim. Childs accepted the job offer shortly thereafter and stepped into the position at the beginning of October.

Once she was on the job, Childs was assigned to serve as the primary legal advisor to a number of county departments, including Economic Development, Elections and Public Works.

On her second day with the county, Childs was contacted by Tom DeAge, a Real Property Agent in Public Works, who introduced himself and asked her to review, approve and return a pre-drafted lease for a property by the end of the workday, according to the claim. She reviewed the lease and noted that “the County agreed to indemnify the Lessor in [the] lease when the County should not,” adding that the county “had not provided the required written notice to exercise the option term therein.”

“The last minute notice that a rush assignment was be [sic] sent to Ms. Childs – usually with just an hour or two notice – was normal operating procedure for Public Works,” the claim states. “When Ms. Childs asked Mr. Billingsley the following week if everything from Public Works was a rush, Mr. Billingsley replied, ‘It will if you let it be.’ Ms. Childs was given no direction on how to deal with the last-minute requests.”

This began a pattern of Public Works staff “undermining” Childs, the claim continues, by sending her pre-drafted legal documents written by “non-lawyers” with “incredibly short timelines” for review and approval.

“It became apparent to me that there was a certain way that county staff did things when it came to legal agreements and they were not things that I was accustomed to,” Childs told the Outpost during a recent interview. 

Childs’ claim points to numerous situations in which DeAge “publicly dispargag[ed]” her legal opinion in front of non-attorney staff. She contacted DeAge directly and asked him to “clarify any questions or concerns he had about her work with her or her supervisors rather than on a multi-party Zoom conference.” 

“I was openly criticized on Zoom calls and conferences by men in Public Works,” Childs said. “I requested of staff that if there were a disagreement with my legal conclusions, to come to me or my supervisor, rather than make it a non-lawyer group consensus. That did not go over well with staff. As a governmental attorney, I’m technically not staff’s attorney. I’m the county”s attorney. I’m supposed to protect the county.”

When his “disrespectful and inappropriate criticisms” continued, Childs contacted one of DeAge’s supervisors and asked if he “equally and publicly criticized men’s work,” adding that his behavior “needed to stop.”

Shortly thereafter, DeAge stopped contacting Childs directly and did not initiate communication with Childs during multi-member staff Zoom meetings, the claim states.

Ongoing Aviation Concerns

Childs was assigned to the Department of Aviation in January 2022 shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had agreed to dismiss its lawsuit against the county over past management practices of the county’s six-airport system. She was assigned to the department to investigate several action items outlined in the agreed upon stipulation issued by the court and to ensure the county’s compliance.

If you recall, that lawsuit originated from an anonymous whistleblower complaint, brought forth in 2018, that exposed a laundry list of regulatory compliance issues stemming from past management practices of the county’s six-airport system, which was previously under the purview of Public Works. These violations ranged from excessively cheap lease agreements with other county departments to the misuse and inappropriate diversion of airport revenue, among other issues.

“One of the things we had to consider moving forward were several action items that were identified by the court as needing the status on and how the County would comply in the future,” Childs told the Outpost. “Part of my job was assisting staff on informing the court about what those action items were and how the County would continue to address them in the future.”

Her chief concern was the county’s history of diverting airport revenue to Public Works. If the county slipped back into its old ways, the FAA could refile the lawsuit.

“After getting the County out of litigation with the FAA, I knew that documenting what was previously and could be perceived as continued noncompliance was not a good idea,” Childs said. “It doesn’t always have to be an intentional diversion of funds. Staff doesn’t necessarily have to intend or know they’re misusing airport revenue. There are very innocuous ways to misuse airport revenue.”

Childs and Billingsley worked closely with Aviation Director Cody Roggatz to address the concerns outlined in the court’s agreed upon stipulation. To address the misuse of airport revenue, the Aviation Department decided to “use its own contracts rather than submit its work requests to the Public Works,” which required a 15 percent commission fee for work performed by Public Works staff.

The claim also highlights the inappropriate use of specific documents, or templates, that are pre-approved by the Board of Supervisors and used by staff for various county transactions. 

“Different transactions have different elements and require different documents,” Childs explained. “If you have template ABC but transaction XYZ, your templates will not address the legal issues that need to be addressed in the transaction. … I am used to lawyers determining what legal document is appropriate and drafting or tailoring that document to the facts.”

The problem is, when staff selects a template that does not cover the necessary legal issues, one of the county’s attorneys has to fix it. Not only is that an inefficient use of time, Childs said, but it can be difficult for staff who have become “emotionally invested in their work.”

“In one instance, a staff member e-mailed me a document that they had reported working on for over two months, refused my legal advice saying the CAO was waiting for it and that it needed to go on the board’s next agenda,” she said. “I advised this person that it wasn’t the appropriate document, [explained] why and then sent it through anyway after noting in the agenda system I had advised staff this was not the appropriate legal document. That seemed to make everyone happy.”

Childs went to her superiors and two department heads “to express her concerns about non-lawyers negotiating and drafting legal agreements for complex transactions,” but there’s no indication in the claim that any action was taken. 

During her time working with the Aviation Department, Childs inevitably crossed paths with Public Works staff on various projects and the “hazing” continued.

“Beware Public Works”

In March 2022, Billingsley called a meeting to announce his resignation, effective April 15. Two days before his departure, Billingsley gave Childs her six-month performance review, “which was largely positive,” consisting of primarily fours and fives on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest. 

“One of the lower ratings was for ‘client relations,’” according to the claim. “When [Childs] inquired about the low score, [Billingsley] advised [her] as he was leaving her office [to] ‘Beware Public Works.’” 

On April 18, a few days after Scott Miles had stepped into the role of interim county counsel, Childs went to his office to express her concerns over the continued inappropriate use of airport revenue. She also asked Miles how she should address ongoing issues with Public Works staff.

“After a few discussions regarding the problems with Public Works department did not appear to be getting through to [Miles], [Childs] asked [him] for permission to speak plainly,” the claim states. “[Miles] said she could and [Childs] responded, ‘Scott, if I had a penis, I would not be treated this way,’ and [he] responded, ‘You’re right, you are being hazed.’ Stunned at [his] admission of inappropriate conduct and no offer to remedy it, [she] replied, ‘Hazing is not okay.’”

Miles advised Childs to file a claim against Public Works through the county’s Human Resources Department, but she felt such an approach “would not build good working relations,” according to the claim. Childs asked if she should undergo additional training to build a “shared understanding” of her role as deputy county counsel. Miles suggested he and Childs meet with the Human Resources attorney Anne Nguyen to discuss the next steps “so everyone could understand their various roles in the approval process and ‘stay in their own lanes.’”

The meeting didn’t amount to much. Nguyen, like Miles, advised Childs to file a claim against Public Works. The possibility of additional training never came up.

In a follow-up email, Nguyen acknowledged the difficult situation and was sympathetic to Childs’ strained relationship with Public Works staff. “I’m really sorry that you had to experience that,” Nguyen wrote. “I completely understand your desire to just move forward, but I would really appreciate the opportunity – whenever you are ready – to talk in more detail about what has occurred to date so that a thorough and complete assessment can be made of any possible violations of … county policy.”

Childs argued that bringing forth a claim would be pointless. She maintained that the root of the issue was “the county’s ‘Boyz club’ [and] ‘hazing’ culture,” according to the claim. 

The behavior persisted. About three months later in July 2022, after someone from the CAO’s office had misconstrued her legal advice regarding an agreement between Aviation and Public Works, Childs contacted Miles asking for guidance.

“The reassignment of the Public Works assignment was in response to your concerns and to protect you from potential issues that you raised,” Miles wrote in an emailed response to Childs, as stated in the claim. “Aviation and Public Works do frequently work closely and this will likely not be the last time that you would have to work on an item that spans between Aviation and Public Works. With that in mind, how would you feel about swapping the Aviation assignment to another attorney in this office?”

Miles added that his offer was an attempt “to be as supportive as I can to you and your success here at the County.”

Childs felt the action was a punishment.

“I thought it was punitive action for my continuing to challenge the hazing I was receiving from Public Works,” Childs told the Outpost. “Neither Aviation nor I had requested a reassignment and as far as I knew, the Director of Aviation and I were in agreement on legal issues. … Ultimately, rather than address improper conduct my supervisor had called ‘hazing,’ the answer from my supervisors was to remove work and entire departments from my caseload which I felt was punitive.”

At this point, Miles had acknowledged that their relationship was “strained” and set up a second meeting with Human Resources Director Zach O’Hanen. During that meeting, Miles allegedly called Childs “disrespectful and unprofessional” for continuing to challenge the hazing incidents. O’Hanen allegedly told Childs that she “did not understand government employment.”

“They acknowledged my concern but it became clear to me that they had no intention of changing the way that things had historically been done by Public Works,” Childs said. “I felt I was approaching a crossroads where I had to make a choice between my job and my license. So, I went outside the chain of command and that’s what got me fired.”

Around the end of September, Childs requested a meeting with Miles and the CAO to address the ongoing “issue of the unauthorized practice of law by non-lawyer County staff.” 

“At 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, [Sept. 22], despite repeated requests by [Childs] for an answer, [Miles] did not answer whether he would set up such a meeting,” the claim states. “[She] informed [Miles] that his lack of a response left her no choice but to file an ethics complaint against he and Duke with the California Bar for allowing non-lawyer County staff to practice law while [she] was not permitted to do so.” 

Just before noon the following day, Childs was fired via email for “alleged repeated instances of disrespect to her supervisor.”

Childs Prepares to Sue the County

Childs received a Notice to Cease and Desist one week after she was fired from outside counsel representing the county. The notice ordered her to stop “disclosing confidential and/or attorney-client privileged information” as well as complaints, “whether they be criminal, administrative or disciplinary.”

Because Childs had not requested anything in return regarding her complaint with the California Bar, there was no violation, according to Day-Wilson. In addition, Day-Wilson argued that the county has “misapplied the definition” of attorney-client privilege. 

“Attorney-client privilege protects only confidential communications made by a client seeking legal advice from their legal adviser,” the claim states. “County staff are NOT [Childs’] clients. The Board of Supervisors is the client.”

When asked if anything came of the ethics violation she filed with the California Bar, Childs said she had gone through with filing the complaint but months later in December it was closed. “I told [the Bar] that this was a culture in the county and the answer I eventually received was that it was closed due to a lack of specificity,” she said.

Childs filed the Claim for Damages against the county at the beginning of this year. The county responded with a Notice of Rejected Claim on Mar. 6, opening the six-month window for Childs to move forward with legal action.

Childs claims she has “suffered damages in excess of $25,000,” as well as loss of reputation, humiliation and an impaired ability to seek employment in her field. “Given the facts, her inability to obtain employment, and the County’s continuing pattern of bad behavior in the County Counsel’s office … she is demanding the sum of $1.4 million to fully resolve this matter,” the claim states.

“This has affected me personally,” Childs told the Outpost. “I moved here for this job [and] tried to do my job, but the only advice I got from my supervisors was to file a formal complaint. When I informed them I was filing a complaint, I was fired. … This whole situation just makes me feel sad. I had hoped this would be my last big move, that this would be the place I would spend the rest of my career and retirement. That”s not how it worked out.”

Childs plans to sue the county for wrongful termination. Day-Wilson added that they would also allege the violation of Childs’ federal civil rights and free speech. 

“The lawsuit will be filed in federal court shortly,” Day-Wilson said.