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Whistle-blowers get protection from Calif. Supreme Court

State workers who suffer retaliation gain the right to sue for damages even if their cases lose before a civil service board.

February 27, 2009|Maura Dolan

Whistle-blowers in state government received protection Thursday from the California Supreme Court in a case in which a low-level employee reported that her superior had violated a regulation she was supposed to enforce.

The state high court gave whistle-blowers who suffer retaliation the right to sue for hefty damages in court even if they lose their case before a civil service board.

"The Legislature enacted the California Whistleblower Protection Act to protect the right of state employees 'to report waste, fraud, abuse of authority, violation of law or threat to public health without fear of retribution,' " Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for a unanimous court.

"In adopting the act, the Legislature expressly found 'that public servants best serve the citizenry when they can be candid and honest without reservation in conducting the people's business.' "

The decision was a victory for Carole M. Arbuckle, who worked for the state Board of Chiropractic Examiners, which regulates chiropractors.

Arbuckle received a telephone inquiry in 2001 about the license of Dr. Sharon Ufberg, who was then chairwoman of the state board. Arbuckle discovered that Ufberg's license, required for board members, had lapsed several months earlier.

Within 15 minutes of getting the report, Arbuckle said, Ufberg called her and explained that she had forgotten to pay her license renewal. Ufberg paid it later that day. But Arbuckle noted on an "information line" in the computer database that Ufberg's license had been invalid from January until May 11, 2001.

During the next several months, Arbuckle issued citations to other chiropractors who had practiced without a license. Fines ranged from $100 to $5,000. Arbuckle said she asked the board's then-executive director several times whether she should cite Ufberg. She was told to take no action, she said.

"In the wake of these events, Arbuckle confronted a stressful work environment, including numerous indignities, disputes and acts of favoritism," the court said, reporting her allegations. Arbuckle eventually was transferred to a different unit.

Arbuckle filed a retaliation complaint in 2002 with the State Personnel Board, which oversees the state civil service workforce. An investigator recommended dismissing her complaint, saying she had not proved the job actions were a result of whistle-blowing.

Arbuckle then sued in Sacramento County Superior Court. An appeals court in Sacramento dismissed her suit, ruling that she had not pursued all administrative appeals. The appeals decision also said state employees could pursue a lawsuit only if the state personnel board agreed with their claims.

Arbuckle and her then-superiors no longer work for the licensing board.

Brian Stiger, executive officer of the board, said the governor appoints its members, who receive $100 for each meeting attended and travel expenses. Being on the board carries "a lot of prestige," he said.

Bruce Monfross, acting chief counsel of the State Personnel Board, said it handles about 55 whistle-blower cases a year out of a total caseload of 5,000.

Most whistle-blower claims fail, he said.

"Retaliation claims aren't the easiest cases in the world to prove," Monfross said.

Ufberg, who is on sabbatical from a medical office in New York, could not be reached for comment.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

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