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California agency sued over wrongful termination

For a California public agency, a recent wrongful termination lawsuit is only one of its legal problems and evidence that government is not immune from employment law problems. A former administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission filed a wrongful termination lawsuit earlier this month alleging that the agency engaged in whistleblower retaliation and racial bias.

This agency has undergone scrutiny since 2010 when a PG&E gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno was responsible for eight fatalities and the CPUC was blamed for inadequate enforcement. Investigators found thousands of emails revealing an inappropriately friendly relationship between agency staff and PG&E executives and discussions over assignment of an ALJ to a rate case.

The attorney general also found notes of a settlement concerning the decommissioning of San Onofre at the CPUC president's home. The final $3.3 billion settlement was criticized because it may have been related to a secret meeting that should have been disclosed by the utility company.

The former ALJ plaintiff, previously responsible for holding hearings and ruling on utility issues, cooperated with investigators concerning communications between PG&E and Commission members. She removed a now former-CPUC commissioner from the San Bruno proceeding because of allegedly improper connections to utility executives.

The ALJ charged unlawful termination and racial discrimination conducted on a systematic basis against African American judges. She also alleged that the CPUC fired her as retaliation for her public objections to its unethical conduct and improper communications with PG&E. Her lawsuit charges that she objected to the appointment of a ALJ nominee because of his relationship with PG&E employees. Emails reportedly indicate that this nominee wrote to PG&E employee about commission business and ridiculed African American ALJs.

Additionally, she charged that CPUC's mandatory management training expounded outdated, discredited and racist theories on white supremacy. The agency allegedly retaliated because she fought against racial bias by conducting training for ALJs sharing her concerning about racial prejudice.

The CPUC said that the it fired the ALJ for cause and denied her allegations. Also, its adverse employment action contained clear reasons for the dismissal and it will strongly defend the case.

An employee facing the loss of a job for illegal reasons should seek prompt legal assistance. An attorney can help obtain evidence of wrongdoing and pursue the worker's legal remedies.

Source: KQED News, "Former judge accuses CPUC of wrongful termination, racial bias ," Lisa-Pickoff-White, Sept. 19, 2017

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