Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Attorneys allowed to gather more evidence in Tri-City wrongful termination suit

Attorneys allowed to gather more evidence in Tri-City wrongful termination suit
Nathan Scharn
Nov. 29, 2011

OCEANSIDE — A U.S. District Court judge issued an order Monday allowing attorneys to gather more evidence in wrongful termination suits between former Tri-City Healthcare District administrators and their former employer, including trustees of the public health care district.

Judge Thomas J. Whelan ruled that attorneys for the administrators would be able to take depositions from defendants involved in a meeting held at Coco’s Restaurant in Vista on Nov. 20, 2008 regarding the discussion at the restaurant. They were fired in 2009 in an overhaul by the elected board of Tri-City’s leadership.

Whelan concluded that the meeting, attended by an attorney and now Chairwoman Rosemarie Reno and trustees Kathleen Sterling, George Coulter and Charlene Anderson, violated the state open government law called the Brown Act.

The law requires public notice of discussions of public business by a majority of elected officials on a board. At the time, only Sterling, who has since been dropped from the case, and Reno were on the board. Coulter and Anderson had been elected, but had not yet assumed office, which constituted a future majority, Whelan said in the ruling.

“The Brown Act also prevents future majorities from gathering privately to make collective commitments affecting the future of the local agency without public input,” Whelan wrote.

The get-together at Coco’s is not related to another controversial dinner meeting, held at West Steak and Seafood in Carlsbad in May 2010 and attended by Reno, Sterling and Coulter, though that meeting has been a factor in several lawsuits, including criminal hearings.

Much of the Coco’s meeting has been kept secret under Magistrate Judge Bernard G. Skomal’s July 18, 2011 discovery order, which held that the discussion at the meeting fell under attorney client privilege. Whelan reversed that, saying the meeting violated the law “in furtherance of a present criminal act,” the ruling said, and was thus exempt from the privilege.

The depositions could provide significant facts in the wrongful termination suit between the former administrators and the health care district.

Trustees fired nine employees after placing them on paid administrative leave. Then-Chief Executive Arthur Gonzalez received a severance package in 2009 worth as much as $1 million. Seven others sought damages in excess of $100,000.

Earlier this year, former vice president of strategic services Allen Coleman received $385,000 and former vice president of performance improvement William “Terry” Howell received $390,000 in settlements, their attorney Ray Artiano and Tri-City officials have confirmed. The other five employees are still pursuing the lawsuit.

The other employees fired were Suellyn Ellerbe, chief operating officer and chief nurse executive; Robert Wardwell, chief financial officer; Doreen Sanderson, vice president of human resources; Daniel Groszkruger, director of information systems; and Ondrea Labella, director of patient business services.

Whelan denied part of the ex-administrators’ contention that Skomal had erred as a matter of law.

Public Tri-City Healthcare District serves residents in Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista.

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