A whistle-blower at a South County sanitation district who alleged she was wrongfully terminated after speaking up to state regulators about the agency’s operation cannot sue the agency, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Devina Douglas filed a lawsuit Jan. 12 against the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District and Chief Plant Operator Jeff Appleton, four months after her job as a laboratory technician was cut in what agency officials called a cost-saving move.
Douglas’ claims stem from incidents that started in April 2009, when she witnessed violations of proper testing procedures, she said. She filed a complaint with state and regional water board officials and was later “frozen out” of the plant operation, according to her lawsuit.
The sanitation district board cut Douglas’ job in September.
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On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Dodie Harman agreed with the district’s argument that Douglas could not sue the public entity for which she worked for wrongful discharge as a whistle-blower.
The ruling does not address the substantive issues alleged in Douglas’ lawsuit, said her attorney, Jeff Stulberg.
“Even if everything she said and alleged was 100 percent true, it would still be barred,” he said.
District officials were satisfied with the ruling and maintained that Douglas’ position was cut for budgetary reasons. The district now contracts with San Luis Obispo-based Abalone Coast Bacteriology for some of its testing that Douglas did.
“It is gratifying to have the court confirm what we have maintained all along,” sanitation district board Chairman Bill Nicolls said in a statement issued Friday.
Nicolls, a Grover Beach councilman, is one of three representatives on the district’s board, serving Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.
Harman’s ruling referenced a 2008 case in which the California Supreme Court cited a law that does not allow an employee of a public entity to bring a wrongful termination claim against the entity as a whistle-blower.
“It will strike anyone as a bizarre outcome,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “If your employer is a government entity, you’re out of luck.”
Scheer said in many other states, a public employee would get some protection if it appeared he or she had been fired at least partly for engaging in free speech.
He added it’s up to the state Legislature to change California’s statute.
Harman also noted in her ruling that Douglas could not file such a claim against Appleton as an individual supervisory employee.
If Douglas had been an employee of a private company, she would have had standing to sue, said Stulberg, her attorney.
Stulberg said he had hoped the court would carve out an exception to the law when significant public safety is at stake.
“If people who work in government and are charged with public safety have a choice of either remaining quiet or doing the right thing and losing their job, in this economy a lot of people might be tempted to stay quiet,” he said Friday.
Douglas, he said, was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling and will take time to consider her options, such as whether to appeal.
In the meantime, a hearing has been set for Thursday in Judge Charles Crandall’s courtroom in a separate suit that Douglas filed Feb. 23 against district Administrator John Wallace, his private engineering firm and Appleton.
In that suit, Douglas alleges her position was cut because she brought to light problems that threatened the contractual relationship between the agency and the defendants.
Wallace has run the district about 25 years. His firm, the Wallace Group, provides engineering services to the agency.
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.