by Sondra Wilson. [email protected] Originally posted 11/9/2022. Last update: 1/22/23.
I. Why I am making this public
II. My Testimony:
First off, I want to sincerely apologize to everyone involved with Lockwood Cafe and Reliable Street who had nothing to do with this situation. It really isn’t fair that a couple of your colleagues did this, however it is extremely important that this issue gets resolved. What happened to me is completely unacceptable and shouldn’t happen to anyone.
I am writing this to expose the truth about how I was discriminated against and defrauded by the CEO of Reliable Street, Lyndsay Nissen, and her friend Charlie Esker. I am also attempting to expose that the State of Iowa and the (federal) Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC) are – in my opinion – not currently providing adequate protections for victims of discrimination.
Nissen and Esker wrote extremely damaging, defamatory statements about me to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission ICRC in order to persuade them to drop the discrimination case I filed against the nonprofit Reliable Street. I wish I didn’t have to write this article, however:
I originally wrote this story as a one-page handout written in third person because this ordeal has been emotionally difficult to write about firsthand. My firsthand testimony, however, is as follows:
In October 2021 I was asked by the CEO of Reliable Street, Lyndsay Nissen, to manage the garden on their property. The garden was built by the local high school club SHEPH (Students Helping to End Poverty and Hunger), however students had limited time to work on it. I was asked in part because I was a regular customer who got along with staff and the community, and because I have extensive experience with gardening and applied ethnobotany. The owner of Lockwood Cafe offered me 50% discounts on everything I ordered in order to contribute toward the garden efforts, and two Lockwood employees expressed interest in helping as well (henceforth “Employee #1” and “Employee #2”). Both employees attended multiple meetings with SHEPH and myself, and one of them volunteered in the garden a few times. After discussing the topic with SHEPH and some Lockwood staff members, I submitted a proposal to install native tallgrass prairie surrounding the garden. Nissen approved the proposal in October 2022.
I worked approximately 20 hrs/week for 6 months volunteering for Reliable Street. Volunteer work I performed includes:
I want to say that up until the incident (described below), I honestly felt respected and cared about by Lockwood’s staff. Several of them went out of their way regularly to let me know I was appreciated and welcome. About every time I went in, various employees would write on my cup or my to-go box. I used to cut out the messages they would leave me and hang them on my fridge:
After speaking with the owner of Lockwood about some small financial needs for the garden – and possibly letting SHEPH have a fundraiser on the property – she scheduled a meeting with Nissen and myself for the following day on March 31, 2022 (Transgender Day of Visibility). As the three of us walked toward the garden, Nissen informed me that there were “multiple complaints” about me “violating peoples’ space”, and that I was being removed from the project. I asked what the nature of the complaints were (what I did which made people feel violated), however I was not told any details because they wanted to “protect the identity” of the accusers. I told them I really didn’t know what this was about, and that it felt really unfair. I was told not to come back to the property.
I wracked my brain for days trying to think of who felt uncomfortable around me. I told some friends who I frequently saw at Lockwood/Reliable what happened – why they wouldn’t be seeing me around. I asked several if I had ever made them feel uncomfortable, and all of them emphatically said “no”. I messaged the President of SHEPH to tell her what happened, and that I could no longer help with the garden. Here was here response (note that most names throughout my testimony are redacted):
iii. An Illegitimate Complaint Against Me:
On April 7 Employee #1 told me that she had in fact complained – which came as a complete surprise. I had not seen this person since these last texts they sent to me two weeks before I was kicked off the property, and obviously their demeanor in them and what they said made this person “last on the list” of who I’d expected to have complained:
After writing to her to inform her I was no longer allowed on the property, Employee #1 sent me the following message, informing me for the first time she felt I had “violated her space and not respected her boundaries”. To this day have no idea why she said this or why she complained against me. I did not perform any actions I did which merited her complaints. I feel manipulated because she acted like my friend and never hinted she felt upset or off-put by me. I believe she “felt” uncomfortable around me, and conveyed it in a way which made me appear as if I had violated her – I don’t understand why she always acted nice, then out of the blue sent this:
iv. Why I Filed a Complaint with ICRC:
I wrote a letter to Lockwood/Reliable after I learned who complained – to show them that from my perspective this was unfair. It was inappropriate for them to treat me like this after I had worked so hard for so many months helping to drastically improve their property. I believe I was prejudiced (pre-judged) with an assumption of guilt against me because a non-transgender woman complained that a transgender woman was “violating her space” – a very typical political (and vague) political attack in this modern era. After receiving no response to the letter, I called the Better Business Bureau and multiple defamation attorneys (because I was accused of things which were apparently bad enough to get me kicked off the property). Nearly all of them urged me to file with Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
When I initially contacted ICRC in April, the receptionist listened carefully to my testimony, then urged me to file. She said complaints often end up with a mediator who meets with both parties and talks through things. She also said that cases often end in a settlement. This is exactly what I wanted because I was not given any reason as to what I allegedly did. I was hoping a mediator would help talk us through it so I could find out what I was accused of. Also because kicking me off violated the agreement I had with the businesses, I wanted reimbursed for my 6 months of labor. I would not have volunteered if I knew they were going violate the agreement: I intended to leave with a portfolio of my restoration and gardening work, but instead left with my reputation marred by accusations.
On April 29, 2022 I filed this complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. In the complaint I requested reimbursement and for Lockwood/Reliable to create a progressive discipline policy in order to protect all parties when handling employee or customer complaints in the future.
I believe that there was discrimination involved because no one communicated anything to me: people apparently felt uncomfortable and lodged complaints against me. I believe that if I were not a transgender woman, I would have been “talked to” instead of “talked about”. If a non-transgender woman were working in the garden and there were complaints against her, it would be a cultural norm and standard business practice to converse with her. I was not given that respect: instead I was pre-judged and barred from the property. I feel exploited for six months of labor I would not have performed had I known I was going to be treated like this.
v. Nissen and Esker lied about me to the ICRC:
On August 3, 2022 ICRC issued this Preliminary Case Review. In it, Nissen and Esker told several lies. Here I will post a few of their statements adjacent to evidence which proves they lied to ICRC:
Lie #1: Not helping to pay for prairie seeds:
Nissen lied about me not helping pay for prairie seeds:
Immediately after I sent Nissen the $100, I messaged Employee #1 Nissen’s payment info because she, too, wanted to pitch in $100 toward prairie seeds (Nissen said not to worry about it, and that she would cover the rest which was about 40.). Employee #1’s response was “Love you”:
Lie #2: Didn’t listen to others and “Bulldozed” people:
Remember, however, the President of SHEPH’s response when I told her I was removed from the project:
These are just a couple examples. I could make several more available, however I think this is enough to show that I was falsely accused by Nissen in an attempt to put my character into serious question. Nissen did not attend gardening meetings, and generally wasn’t around to see our interactions. She wrote that I “bulldozed” people and “cornered her” and several other statements in order to cast me in a negative light to ICRC so they would drop the case and it worked.
Lie #3: “stalking and harassing” employee #1, and “harassing” Lockwood staff:
Esker wrote (actually everything Esker wrote here was a lie):
So again I never saw Employee #1 since those previous text messages I shared. I have no clue where she lives nor do I care nor have I ever asked, followed her anywhere, or cared: it is easy to tell I was not “stalking and harassing” her based on her demeanor and what she said in the texts. It is sad and really upsets me that all I wanted from the ICRC was to talk things through with Reliable Street and come to a reasonable settlement, but Nissen and her friend went to these lengths to prevent such a simple ask. I would like to see them both charged with fraud, however local authorities did not take action on this when I contacted them about it. I feel like the State of Iowa is really failing me so far in this.
Lie #4: Esker was merely a “patron”:
I am not sure which definition Esker meant by “patron”:
Based on the context of Esker’s statements, however, it appears they meant “customer”. First off – I have never asked Lockwood/Reliable’s customer’s for money, but the disingenuous part of Esker’s statements with regard to them being a mere “patron” is that Esker sells art at Reliable Street’s gallery. At the time I received ICRC’s case review, Esker also had an art studio provided to them by Reliable Street (Esker may still have the studio today, but I don’t know). If I did not know these things (if I were the ICRC analyzing the case), I would assume Esker was merely an unbiased customer who witnessed these terrible things. I believe this is part of how Esker and Nissen intentionally deceived the ICRC (and I believe ICRC should have looked into this closer after I pointed it out in my appeal).
Nearly everything Esker and Nissen wrote about me was false. I have posted evidence which strongly puts several of their statements into question, and I think it is enough that it should put some of their other comments into question. Anyone who knows me knows I firmly stand against racism, and they even accused me of that. Here is a list of lies about me Nissen and Esker submitted to ICRC:
I believe Nissen and Esker used false statements in a manner which constitutes extrinsic fraud (fraud used to deny a person due process) and character assassination against me in order to convince ICRC to drop the case, and it worked.
vi. ICRC Closed the Case Prematurely:
According to ICRC’s “Outline of Complaint Process” webpage, ICRC uses the following standard when screening cases:
“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission issues screening decisions based on the information collected to date. If the information indicates a “reasonable possibility of a probable cause determination or the legal issues in the complaint need development” the Commission will “screen in” a case for further investigation….
During the screening stage, the Commission draws all “rational, reasonable, and otherwise permissible” inferences in Complainant’s favor…. Importantly, the Commission does not evaluate credibility at the screening stage, and instead evaluates only whether the stated facts create a “reasonable possibility” for a probable cause finding. The Commission relies in part on its own experience and expertise with the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), while remaining mindful that many cases turn on circumstantial—rather than direct—evidence of discrimination….“
Despite this, on Aug. 3 ICRC closed the case. In my opinion it looks to me that ICRC drew all “rational, reasonable, and otherwise permissible” inferences in the Defendant’s favor. When there are so many facts in dispute, and clear evidence at least some of what Nissen wrote was false, I believe ICRC should have determined “further investigation was needed”. Instead they closed the case while this issue remained unresolved. I believe ICRC’s decision to close the case prematurely was negligent.
vii. ICRC denied my appeal:
When ICRC closed the case, I was given a strict 30-day time limit to file the appeal. This was an extremely difficult deadline for me to reach: not only did it interfere with my schoolwork, but also it was just traumatizing in general to be accused of all these heinous things by Nissen and Esker. It took me more than a week just to finish reading ICRC’s Preliminary Case Review because it was so emotionally upsetting for me to read what they wrote. I was able to write just a small amount into the appeal each day. One day before the deadline I emailed ICRC and let them know I was having a difficult time finishing it in time, and instead of offering an extension they told me it was a “strict deadline”. That is why the the appeal I filed was not well-written or as thorough as it should have been. I think that ICRC should allow more time for Complainants to appeal, because there is a lot of trauma in these situations. I’m sure many people – like myself – have a difficult time finding help from an attorney. Letter from ICRC denying my appeal.
viii. ICRC’s recommendation to “Find an Attorney” not helpful – State of Iowa has limited resources:
After ICRC dropped the case, their advice to me became “find an attorney”. I was told to look at the Iowa State Bar website, and
ix. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defaulted to ICRC’s judgment – not helpful:
X. Filed with Ombudsman against ICRC – no avail:
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Bottom line: If all a business has to do is lie about a situation in order to get ICRC to drop a case, then minorities aren’t sufficiently protected in Iowa.
xi. Injuries and Losses:
injury to reputation – as a transgender woman I already face the stigma that many people in society have against me. Being accused of “stalking, harassing, and violating women” by Reliable Street and/or by Lockwood Employee(s) is completely false, unfair, and puts my reputation strongly into question.
Breach of Agreement
What I agreed to vs. what I received were inconsistent. I never would have agreed to perform the labor I did had I known Reliable Street was going to sever the agreement prematurely before the results could come to fruition. Instead of leaving with before and after photos of my work which would have built my portfolio and helped me to obtain work in my desired field in the future, instead I left with my reputation marred by defamatory allegations. Reliable Street would have handled this differently had I not been prejudiced (pre-judged) based on stereotypical complaints against transgender women “violating women’s spaces”. If Reliable Street had a progressive resolution policy in place, I likely would have been warned or given examples of what I did which was wrong (I was not told what I did which made employee #1 feel “violated”, and I sincerely believe she felt uncomfortable around me: I can think of no action I performed which merit her accusation), but instead I was kicked off the property and exploited for my labor.
doctrine of promissory estoppel
expectation damages – “(1939) Compensation awarded for the loss of what a person reasonably anticipated from a transaction that was not completed.”
Commission of entering fraudulent statements to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, by Nissen and Esker, appear to me to have been designed to rob me of due process. This type of fraud is classified as extrinsic fraud, and may be a violation of 18 USC 241: Conspiracy against rights.
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Assessment of Damages: