The court action follows allegations and complaints to state and federal regulators made by former Hermitage Club Real Estate broker Robert Balewicz. Balewicz filed a “whistleblower retaliation complaint” with the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, saying that he was fired in retaliation for reporting alleged illegal accounting activities and illegal kickbacks for real estate referrals, and reporting the alleged violations of real estate law to state regulators. Balewicz and former Hermitage Club Managing Director of Hospitality John Santaniello also filed a complaint with the Vermont Attorney General’s office alleging workplace harassment at the Hermitage Club.
The Hermitage Club and James Barnes filed an initial civil complaint on Wednesday, January 3, accusing Balewicz of defamation and seeking compensatory and punitive damages, court costs, and other relief. Barnes’ and the Hermitage Club’s suit claims that Balewicz was fired after Barnes confronted him about “substance abuse issues, often in a public setting while wearing clothing bearing the club’s logo,” the use of “foul and threatening language,” and “racist and anti-Semitic slurs in the workplace.”
According to Barnes and the Hermitage Club, Balewicz retaliated with “a course of defamatory conduct” directed at Barnes and the club after his termination. “Mr. Balewicz has intentionally published to third parties that Mr. Barnes is a sociopath, has behaved illegally, including the payment of illegal referral fees and as the operator of a Ponzi scheme, has mismanaged the affairs of the club, and has engaged in ‘sexual/workplace harassment’ of Mr. Balewicz and … John Santaniello.”
The suit claims Barnes has suffered “annoyance, embarrassment, stress, anguish, and a temporary loss of reputation” as a result of Balewicz’s actions, and that the Hermitage Club’s “reputation and standing in the community as a ‘first class’ operation’” has been “temporarily impaired and endangered.”
In his answer to the complaint, filed last week, Balewicz denies the allegations of substance abuse and foul, racist language, and that he engaged in defamatory conduct in retaliation for his termination. Balewicz agreed, however, that he has called Barnes a sociopath, and that he has claimed Barnes engaged in illegal activity, mismanaged the club, and engaged in sexual and workplace harassment. “Defendant admits the allegations … but denies that the allegations constitute defamatory conduct.”
At the same time Balewicz filed his answer to Barnes’ complaint, he and Santaniello filed a counter-claim against Barnes, the Hermitage Club, and Hermitage Club Director of Human Resources Renee Mulkey. The counter-suit claims the Hermitage Club and Barnes engaged in sexual harassment against Balewicz and Santaniello, engaged in employment discrimination against them, wrongfully terminated Santaniello’s employment, retaliated against Balewicz when he reported Barnes’ alleged actions and other practices, and claims financial losses caused by Barnes’ actions. Balewicz and Santaniello ask for actual, compensatory, and punitive damages, court costs and attorney’s fees, and to be made whole for any losses suffered.
The complaint describes a hostile work environment in which Balewicz’s and Santaniello’s personal relationship and off-duty activities were scrutinized, questioned, and discussed. Balewicz and Santaniello say they developed a personal relationship soon after they started working at the Hermitage, and spent time together after work hours. Barnes questioned the two about their relationship “by repeatedly asking Balewicz and Santaniello about what they did the prior evening, why they needed to spend so much social time together, and why they posted photos of their personal activities on Facebook.”
The complaint also describes comments made by Barnes, as well a hand gesture “simulating oral sex” used “a dozen or more times” in September, October, and November.
The allegations also suggest that Balewicz and Santaniello were subject to observation In late September, “Barnes questioned Balewicz about why Santaniello’s automobile was in an off-premise restaurant parking lot until early morning. When Balewicz responded that he drove Santaniello home, Barnes continued his interrogation by asking Balewicz if he picked up Santaniello at home the following morning, thereby forcing Balewicz to disclose that he had spent the night at Santaniello’s residence.”
Barnes also questioned Santaniello, according to the complaint, and “expressed ‘concern’ about the ‘optics’ of Balewicz’s vehicle being parked outside Santaniello’s (residence) all night.”
When Balewicz announced that he and Santaniello signed a lease on a single-family home, Barnes allegedly told them they were “losing credibility with club members,” and that it “does not look good for two fags to be running the club and living together.”
Santaniello’s employment was “abruptly” terminated in late November, according to the counter-claim, in retaliation for his ongoing relationship with Balewicz. When Balewicz posted a note of support for Santaniello on Facebook that was contrary to Barnes’ public statement on Santaniello’s departure, Barnes allegedly called him at home to demand that he remove the post. “Barnes and Balewicz were not ‘friends’ on Facebook,” the suit claims, suggesting that Balewicz’s social media was being monitored. “The following day, Barnes called Balewicz into his office and threatened that his loyalty to Barnes was in question, and that it could affect Balewicz’s employment.”
The suit also recounts allegations detailed in Balewicz’s complaints of illegal business practices made to the Hermitage Club and state and federal officials previously reported in The Deerfield Valley News.
Balewicz and Santaniello declined to comment on the suit, citing the advice of their attorney. Club officials did not respond to a request for comment by press time.