Law & Courts

Calif. Ed. Dept. Faulted In Whistle-Blower Case

By Joetta L. Sack — February 19, 2003 3 min read
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A California judge last week upheld a $4 million verdict against the state department of education, but dismissed $150,000 in punitive damages against former schools chief Delaine Eastin in a case alleging discrimination against a whistle-blower.

In December, a jury found that James Lindberg, a former consultant in the state agency’s adult education department, had been harassed and moved to another job within the agency for reporting irregularities and potential abuses in the state’s handling of federal and state funds.

Total fines assessed against the California Department of Education in Sacramento Superior Court now stand at just over $4 million, but the department will appeal the judgment, according to agency lawyer Joanne Lowe.

Gaspar Garcia II, the lawyer for Mr. Lindberg, said that his client had worked for 18 years in the adult education department, and during the course of his job found that some state contractors were abusing the system by inflating student enrollments, overstating their duties, and not providing sites to house the educational programs for which they were receiving funding.

But after he tried to bring the problems to the attention of higher-ranking state and federal officials, he was demoted to another department within the agency, Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Lindberg was also denied access to internal files that would prove his case, professional development and training, and chances to interview for other jobs within the department, his lawyer said. The verdict includes awards for back pay and loss of pension funds, Mr. Garcia said.

Further, he said, Mr. Lindberg was humiliated and teased by colleagues because of his claims. Mr. Garcia said the subsequent stress exacerbated Mr. Lindberg’s existing health problems, which include congestive heart failure and diabetes. Mr. Lindberg, 63, has suffered two heart attacks since filing the lawsuit in 2001, Mr. Garcia said.

Malice Claim Fails

The jury found that Ms. Eastin, then the state superintendent of public instruction, had intentionally retaliated against Mr. Lindberg for reporting the offenses. Some witnesses in the December trial speculated that Ms. Eastin was under pressure from Latino members of the state legislature to provide funding for English-language and citizenship classes for adult immigrants.

But Judge Brian R. Van Camp, in the ruling last week, said that Mr. Lindberg’s claims could not meet the burden of proof for malice. Judge Van Camp wrote that Ms. Eastin’s “failures may have been unprofessional, ill-founded, unresponsive, or even rude, but the law imposes a high burden to find malice.”

Ms. Eastin left office last month after being ineligible to run for re- election to a third term because of term limits. She could not be reached last week for comment.

Ms. Lowe said Ms. Eastin should be completely exonerated because Mr. Lindberg’s claims were unfounded. For instance, she said, his change of job came during a reorganization of the adult education department, and his new job was not a demotion.

Ms. Lowe said the times he did find that contractors were falling short, the claims were investigated and action was taken.

Further, she said, Ms. Eastin did not know who Mr. Lindberg was, as the education department has thousands of employees. Ms. Lowe said that Mr. Lindberg had approached the schools chief only at inopportune times, such as during a holiday party and on a street corner.

“These were not arranged meetings; he never, ever detailed to her in any conversation what he had found, why it was fraudulent, or who he was,” Ms. Lowe maintained. “When he says, ‘You’re retaliating against me,’ what does that mean? There’s not a shred of evidence that that ever happened.”

Lawyers for the education department had asked Judge Van Camp to set aside the entire judgment, but he declined to do so.

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