OCEANSIDE: Judge says city discriminated against former employee
By CRAIG TENBROECK
April 29, 2008
OCEANSIDE ---- A Superior Court judge has upbraided the city of Oceanside for wrongfully firing a police department employee with an immune system disorder, saying there was no excuse for her to have been "so badly mistreated."
"This court has not seen such lack of civility and simple common decency in quite a long time," Judge Michael Orfield said last week in a tentative ruling that described the 2006 firing.
"The plaintiff was not being removed for incompetence, for violation of rules or a breach of trust," he said. "She was being removed from a 12-year career because of a perceived medical condition that (without the slightest confirmation) was without the possibility of accommodation."
Orfield concluded that the city discriminated against the employee, Michele Morgans, and should pay damages of $628,000.
Morgans worked as a field evidence technician for the police department.
The judge's ruling came after a 15-day trial at the Vista courthouse...
Morgans, 50, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the ruling vindicated her.
"There's nothing worse than having an illness or something you can't control," said Morgans. "But to get fired because the city doesn't like it was heartbreaking."
City Attorney John Mullen said Tuesday that the City Council will meet in closed session as early as next week to discuss its options...
In 1999, Morgans was diagnosed with Graves' Disease, a type of autoimmune disorder that causes overactivity of the thyroid gland. In Morgans' case, it involved swelling of the tissues in her eye socket, requiring multiple surgeries.
She filed a worker's compensation claim against the city in 2003, saying that on-the-job stress over the death of Officer Tony Zeppetella aggravated her condition. Zeppetella was fatally shot June 13, 2003, while making a traffic stop. Morgans participated in the officer's autopsy.
The city contested Morgans' worker's compensation claim, but she prevailed in late 2005.
Shortly after that, the city decided Morgans could no longer be a field evidence technician because that job was inherently stressful, Mullen said. When the city offered her other jobs, she declined.
Daniel Carroll, Morgans' attorney, said the positions that the city offered paid less than she was making as an evidence technician...
"The only accommodations she needed were the ability to come in late when she had a headache, and if they had another situation, like an officer-involved shooting, don't send her to the autopsy," he said.
On Jan. 10, 2006, the city placed her on administrative leave and told her to stay away from city facilities. She was eventually fired.
Orfield said the strong tone of his tentative ruling was deliberate.
"It is meant to convey to the powers that be within the city the need to go back to the drawing board and rethink how they should handle similar situations in the future," he said.
The city's police department has a history of expensive litigation. Several years ago, Terry Johnson, Oceanside's mayor at the time, requested a report analyzing legal expenses for the department.
The report showed that from 1992 to 2002, the city spent about $5.87 million on litigation involving the police department...