(San Bernardino) – In closed session this morning, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors agreed to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by former County Administrative Officer Mark Uffer in May 2010. Jury trial was scheduled to commence on April 2, 2012.
The vote to settle was 3-2. Chairman Josie Gonzales, who is said to have been pushing for a settlement, along with Supervisor Gary Ovitt and Supervisor Janice Rutherford voted in favor of the agreement. Supervisors Brad Mitzelfelt and Neil Derry voted against it.
A press release was immediately issued by the county defending the board’s decision. “The County agreed to settle only to avoid the costs of going to court. The County does not believe any new information would have emerged during a trial, and in agreeing to the settlement proposal the County maintained its disagreement with all of the plaintiff’s claims.
“Attorneys estimated the trial alone would cost the County at least $400,000. The proceedings, which were set to begin April 2, in addition to even a moderate settlement, award or judgment, could have pushed the County’s costs beyond the settlement that was achieved today.”
However, Supervisor Derry issued his own statement. “The apparent lesson for all San Bernardino County employees to learn from this is even if you are an at-will employee and are terminated, go ahead and sue us because we are going to give you a lot of taxpayer dollars,” Supervisor Derry said.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors had already authorized and spent in excess of $1 million in defending the suit. The board flew in outside counsel from Northern California and sometimes was represented by as many as five attorneys in court for even simple motions.
The settlement was mediated by retired Superior Court Judge John W. Kennedy, Jr., who the county says indicated he felt it was fair to both sides. Uffer originally sued for $15 million.
Uffer filed suit after being terminated without cause on November 17, 2009, in a 3-2 vote as authorized by his contract and county ordinance. He was given a one-year severance package as part of that contract and separation.
Uffer alleged that he was fired because of his cooperation with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office and Grand Jury. Two former members of the Board of Supervisors and two chiefs of staff have been charged or indicted for multiple felonies in connection with an on-going corruption investigation.
Uffer originally filed three causes of action including wrongful termination. The county demurred and Judge Donald Alvarez sustained the demurrers on two causes but allowed the whistle-blower cause to proceed.
Uffer issued a written statement regarding the settlement. “While I believe I would have prevailed if this had gone to court, I appreciate that the county has agreed to a settlement,” he wrote.
“Born and raised in San Bernardino County, I take great pride in my public service, serving as the CEO at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and then as County Administrative Officer. The mutual offer to meditate and settle this case offered an opportunity to resolve a painful issue for both sides.
“I hope that everyone involved can move on and work toward the public good, and I wish the hard-working county employees who I worked with, nothing but the best,“ Uffer concluded.
In a separate statement, Sanford Kassel, attorney for Mark Uffer, wrote, “Mr. Uffer has spent literally every day of his life since the County took their actions trying to rebuild his reputation and move forward. The County understood the issues and spent over $1 million dollars trying to defend this case.
“Being from a small community and trying to claw his way back to a meaningful and rewarding job in health care has been difficult. Yes, we could have fought on, but Mr. Uffer wanted his life to return to normal.
“Mr. Uffer always took pride in his various leadership roles with the County of San Bernardino, serving as CEO of Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and then as the County Administrative Officer for the entire County. Being a local resident, born and raised in San Bernardino County, Mr. Uffer took immense pride in these achievements.
“As part of the settlement, the County acknowledges Mr. Uffer`s quality leadership role as a Health Care Executive. He always placed a high value on this fact and while serving as the County Administrator had effectively left the health care world.
“He has now returned to that career path and looks forward to putting this chapter of life in the past. There was never a moment when Mr. Uffer faltered in his desire to share the truth with the public.
“We hope that the County itself can heal from the conduct of those involved in this lawsuit. As much as people accused Mr. Uffer of seeking huge damages, this case was more about opening the books on the behavior of certain elected officials and their staff and less about winning huge awards.”
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