A spokesman for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said Tuesday that city lawyers disagree with an appeals court ruling last week upholding a $5 million verdict in a whistleblower case, but have not yet decided whether to appeal further.
Spokesman John Cote said:
“We’re evaluating our next steps.”
In a decision issued Thursday, a state Court of Appeal panel in San Francisco upheld a 2017 Superior Court jury award of $2.6 million in damages and $2.4 million in attorney’s fees for former Chief Trial Attorney Joanne Hoeper of the City Attorney’s Office.
Hoeper claimed she was fired in retaliation for her investigation in 2012 of payments made by the city to plumbing companies to repair sewer lines damaged by tree roots.
Herrera contended the reason was dissatisfaction with her handling of other matters dating back several years.
A three-judge appeals panel agreed that the trial jury had ample evidence to conclude that Hoeper was fired in retaliation and that:
“(T)he proffered reasons for her termination were pretextual.”
The court said:
“(Evidence at the 2017 trial) amply supports the jury’s factual determinations that Hoeper’s sewer investigation was a contributing factor in, or substantial motivating reason for, Herrera’s decision to terminate her employment.”
In addition to the $2.4 million to pay her lawyers, the jury award included $740,000 for past and future lost earnings and $1.3 million for emotional distress.
The appeals court rejected the city’s contention that the emotional distress portion was excessive.
Justice Peter Siggins wrote in the court’s opinion:
“The loss of Hoeper’s position effectively put an end to her 30-year legal career and 20 years at the City Attorney’s Office.”
In a statement released by her lawyers, Hoeper said:
“I lost the career I loved protecting the city I love. I hope this long-delayed victory encourages other public employees to do the right thing, be true to their oath and report wrongdoing.”
Cote said the case was an employment dispute and “was never about corruption.”
“No court has found or suggested any city corruption in connection with Ms. Hoeper’s claims.”
“It’s unfortunate the court did not recognize that the city attorney had ample legitimate reasons for terminating Ms. Hoeper long before he actually did so.”
Herrera transferred Hoeper to the District Attorney’s Office in August 2012 and terminated her employment in January 2014.
The city’s options for further appeal could include asking the appeals court for reconsideration or seeking review by the California Supreme Court.