Carneros Resort and Spa

A former employee of Carneros Resort and Spa is suing the Napa Valley resort, its owners and management for wrongful termination, according to a suit filed in Napa County Superior Court in December.

The suit alleges that former Director of Facilities Daniel Philbin’s firing was a form of retaliation against him for trying to get the resort to accurately report its water usage, obtain proper permits and comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

The case is in its early stages, but Philbin’s attorney, Emily A. Nugent of Dickson Geesman LLP in Oakland, says the law firm is looking forward to getting it in front of a jury as so much of the case affects public interests.

The owners of the Carneros Resort and Spa deny the allegations in Philbin’s complaint, according to a PR firm representing the company. Philbin resigned from the company after unsuccessfully trying to renegotiate the terms of his contract, the company said.

Carneros Resort and Spa said through its PR firm: “The water issues alluded to in Dan’s complaint long pre-date the current ownership. In fact, it was the new owners who brought the issues to the County’s attention when they acquired the property in 2014. Since then, ownership has worked diligently and cooperatively with the County to resolve them, and think they are very close to a solution.”

The PR representative also said that the resort has addressed all ADA issues as soon as they were brought to their attention.

“The owners of the resort believe Dan Philbin has filed this lawsuit in pursuit of a personal agenda and look forward to setting the record straight in court,” according to the PR representative.

Since Carneros Resort and Spa, formerly Carneros Inn, was purchased by GF Carneros Holdings, LLC, GEM Realty Capital, Inc. and Flynn Properties, Inc., in 2013 much of the property has been renovated and rebranded, according to the suit. At that time, Philbin, who had worked at the hotel since 2004, became increasingly concerned about the company’s pending and planned projects.

“Mr. Philbin’s complaints included: excessive water consumption by the Carneros Resort and Spa and its deceptive water usage reporting to Napa County; non-compliance with the ADA during renovations to guest cottages, suites, and pool areas; construction and grading without proper permits or authorization; and submitting misleading scopes of work to – and hiding intensification of use from – Napa County,” according to the suit.

During a course of renovations in 2014, despite Philbin’s insistence on ADA compliance, the resort refused to install ramps between deck and patio spaces and failed to install lifts at pools and hot tubs so that guests with disabilities could use those areas, the suit alleges.

Then, in 2015, the resort drilled an additional well to create a new water source in an area that violated Napa County policy, according to the suit. Although there was a permit for a well, the resort did not have permits for the electrical and water connections to and from it, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, Philbin repeatedly told the company that it was violating the use permit restriction.

The resort violated its use permits and pressured its employees to proceed with construction without proper permit on numerous occasions, the suit alleges. Philbin says in the suit that, in late 2016 and early 2017, he was coerced into working with contractors to illegally dump spoils and complete grading work in violation of a stop work order from Napa County

Although he had installed a new, more accurate water meter on the property in 2013, in 2016 Philbin noticed an error in documents submitted to the county about the resort’s water usage, according to the suit. The error made it look like the resort had used less water than reported, so Philbin notified the proper individuals.

This allegedly angered Greg Flynn, CEO of minority owner Flynn Properties, who, according to the suit, told Philbin to “stop finding things that damage us” and “this is very damaging, we need to put the old (inaccurate) meters back or drop a zero.”

In January 2017, Philbin proposed that he focus on the hotel’s water issues and turn over his other facilities duties to a colleague. His proposal was supported by an onsite manager, but was eventually rejected by the owners. Philbin was then left out of certain meetings, including a trip to Palm Springs, which he was not even told about, according to the suit.

Following the trip, Philbin was told that an outside vendor would handle the resort’s water issues, but that they wanted Philbin to stay on and help the new company for a flat rate of $5,000 a month. Philbin felt this meant that his proposal was rejected and that he was being removed from his duties as director of facilities.

During a “tense” meeting later that month, Flynn told Philbin that if he could “swallow his pride” then he could have his old job back, the suit alleges. After the meeting, according to the suit, Flynn then said: “One thing that has always pissed me off was that you installed those (accurate) water meters without my approval or even asking me. That move has caused me so much headache over the years.”

Philbin then informed Flynn that the meters had been installed under the old ownership.

The following week, Philbin accepted Flynn’s offer, but later received an email that his resignation had been accepted, even though he had never offered his resignation, according to the suit.

The same day, Philbin’s email was disconnected and his phone was shut off. The company had also retroactively cancelled Philbin’s health insurance without telling him, the suit alleges.

In addition to lost wages, Philbin’s experience was “humiliating and extremely anxiety producing,” according to the suit.

Philbin is suing for damages, attorneys’ fees, costs of suit, and is demanding a jury trial.

A case management conference is scheduled for June 5.

Carneros Resort and Spa has faced well water quality and quantity problems for several years. Its response is documented in a recent Napa County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) report.

A county-approved use permit limits the resort to extracting 28 acre feet of groundwater annually, the LAFCO report said. Yet the resort uses about 42 acre-feet of water annually, requiring it to truck in city water taken from city of Napa fire hydrants. It does so through its Carneros Inn Mutual Water Company.

That practice has caused controversy, in part because of truck traffic and in part because the county doesn’t view trucked water as being a reliable source in the long run. In 2014, the county told the Carneros Resort and Spa that it would have to at some point stop trucking in water, leading to a search for an alternative.

The Carneros Resort and Spa has since explored extending a water line so it can pipe city of Napa water to the property directly. That would involve votes by both the Napa City Council and LAFCO.

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.