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Browne back on the job

Wrongful-termination case ends in $480K settlement

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POSTED November 10, 2009 3:17 a.m.

LATHROP – The Matt Browne wrongful-termination saga is over.

The Lathrop chief building official’s two-and-a-half-year’s dogged fight against City Hall is over.

He is back on the job today inside the building where, at one point while he was waging his war to “clear my name,” he was ordered by city officials not to set foot in any part of City Hall or risk being arrested for trespassing.

In plain numbers, it’s a $480,000 victory for Browne and his legal counsel, San Francisco employment law attorney Ellen Mendelson.

City officials who were reached by the Manteca Bulletin for confirmation and comments on Monday all declined to make any statements. City Manager Cary Keaten said after the special council meeting Monday night that any official announcement would be forthcoming this morning.

“As it stands today, it is my understanding that only a tentative agreement has been reached and that it is being discussed with our insurance company and their board of directors today. Therefore, until they approve the tentative agreement (maybe this evening), it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” Keaten stated in an e-mail he sent earlier in the day in response to questions e-mailed to him.

He reiterated that statement in person during a short interview after the council meeting.

However, the official settlement was confirmed later in the day by Mendelson during a telephone interview.

“I am delighted with the outcome. Matt Browne got his job back and the bad people who did this to him were fired. My goal has always been to get Matt his job back – the job is irreplaceable,” she stated in her official comment on the case that pitted her against Michael Colantuono, the Harvard- and Boalt Law School-educated legal counsel who represented the city management.

“The settlement terms provide substantial protection from termination or other arbitrary action until Mr. Browne reaches an age where he can retire, and actually, last longer if he wishes to work beyond retirement eligibility,” Mendelson said.

She added, “This case should be a lesson to all public entities that their employees are protected by the state and federal constitutions, and that arbitrary actions will not be sustained when reviewed by persons with knowledge of the laws that apply to public employees.”

While she did not disclose any settlement figures, the Bulletin has learned from reliable sources who asked for anonymity because no official announcement has been made at the time of the interview, that in addition to Browne’s reinstatement to his old job as chief building official “as if (he) never left,” the city will award him $300,000 in back pay and for pain and suffering plus $140,000 for the accumulated back benefits, among other conditions of his return to work.

Additionally, the city will pay all of Browne’s attorney’s fees.

People responsible
for termination gone

Commenting on the good news after an arduous fight that drove him to near penury and to making a difficult decision at one point whether he should lose his water or electric service, the 17-year Lathrop city employee said, “I did this for all the people that have disappeared (at City Hall). I watched so many people leave that building mysteriously. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me. Somebody needed to put a stop” to the employment revolving door at City Hall, he said.

But his “biggest” victory in this long-drawn fight to clear his name, he said, was that the “two people” who were responsible for his wrongful termination “are gone.”

Those two people, who were the same “bad people” referred to by Mendelson above were former City Manager Quiring and former Community Development Director Marilyn Ponton who was Browne’s immediate supervisor.

Quiring, who was recently hired as city manager by the City of Fillmore in Southern California, resigned as city manager the week before the elections in November 2008 and received $332,500 according to the terms of her contract with the city. The benefit lump sum was paid in lieu of severance pay due her for accumulated sick leave, management leave, vacation time and other accumulated benefits. Two council members did not want her to resign and voted accordingly: Mayor Kristy Sayles and then-council member and now-Vice Mayor Martha Salcedo. Voting to accept her resignation were council members Robert Oliver, then-vice mayor and incumbent council member Sonny Dhaliwal, and Steve Dresser who is no longer with the council. The council appointed then-acting city manager Keaten as interim city manager effective Nov. 1, 2008. Quiring’s last day on the job was Oct. 31, 2008.

Ponton was laid off in May as part of the city’s continuing effort to bridge a $3 million-plus deficit in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

How the Browne
wrongful termination
story started

It was Quiring who placed Browne on paid administrative leave in July 2007 without a written or verbal explanation. Browne learned about it the day he was due to report back to work after a medical leave resulting from an injury sustained while working on the rehabilitation of the Senior Center at Valverde Park. The council at that time decided to have city employees like Browne and then code enforcement officer Fred Manuel to lend their skills, expertise and manual labor to the rehabilitation project in an effort to cut costs. Browne was injured while operating the high-powered machine used to break cement.

Following that incident, he applied for worker’s compensation. Later, he was released and approved to go back to work by his medical doctor, a fact that Quiring and Ponton did not know, as it later turned out. While Browne was on administrative leave, the city hired a video camcorder-toting private investigator that followed and videotaped Browne’s every move in four days, going as far as following him to the men’s room at the Manteca Golf Course when he went there to play. Browne and his attorney found out all of that after they requested for, and obtained, a copy of the videotape.

The presence of the videotape and the hiring of a private investigator was later admitted by Quiring and Ponton during a hearing before an EDD (state Employment Development Department) administrative judge over the city’s denial of Browne’s application for unemployment benefits. The judge ruled in favor of Browne.

In February of 2008, Quiring fired Browne, again without verbal or written explanation. Browne came home one day to find in his front porch a box full of official city papers that he was told contained the reasons for his termination, and his severance check of nearly $20,000 tacked onto his screen door.

The Browne case was not the only thing that marred Quiring’s tenure as Lathrop city manager from June 2007 to Oct. 2008. In February 2008, the same month she fired Browne, the SEIU (Service Employees International Union representing union city staff) presented a blistering letter to the Lathrop council voicing their displeasure with Quiring and the Community Development Department headed by Ponton. No action was ever taken by the council over this matter.

Browne demanded a public hearing in his wrongful-termination complaint against the city, but that request was denied. After the first hearing officer selected excused himself from the job, Browne’s hearing finally was held during a ten-day cumulative period in September and October 2008 under a new judge.

According to the language of the resolution approved by the council, council members were to make a determination on the case after they received and reviewed the recommendations of hearing judge Douglass Barton. Barton’s 50-page report was presented to the council in April on Good Friday. Among his recommendations was the reinstatement of Browne to his old job.

To contact Rose Albano Risso, e-mail ralbanorisso@mantecabulletin.com or call (209) 249-3536.

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