Thursday, April 24, 2014 —Lassen County and its former County Administrative Officer Tom Stone have finally settled their differences.
Without admitting liability, the county agreed to a $350,000 settlement to be paid within 15 days. In exchange, Stone will dismiss with prejudice his wrongful termination/slander lawsuit against Lassen County, et al, and forever release all claims arising out of his employment with the county. Each side will bear its own attorney’s costs and expenses.
On July 25, 2012, Stone filed a federal lawsuit “alleging injuries caused by his termination from employment with Lassen County and slander,” after he was fired in 2011, according to the settlement agreement and release.
That lawsuit was dismissed in January 2013 because it was filed in the wrong jurisdiction. Stone refiled in Lassen County Superior Court alleging he “suffered harm due to the conduct of defendants, including but not limited to loss of employability, lost earnings and benefits, inability to find new employment, emotional distress, damage to his reputation (and) financial losses … ” according to the agreement.
In October 2013, Stone filed a second amended complaint alleging, according to the agreement, “retaliation in violation of the California Labor Code Section 1102.5, for retaliation in violation of California Government Code Section 12653 and for slander. Defendants denied all the allegations against them, denied plaintiff was harmed at all and asserted numerous affirmative defenses.”
According to the agreement, “In order to avoid the substantial expense and inconvenience of further litigation and appeals, the parties now desire to finally settle all claims asserted in, as well as all issues that were raised or could have been (raised) in the county of Lassen civil action, as well as any claims or potential claims arising from any transactions or occurrences between plaintiff and the defendants … ”
According to a press release from Lassen County Executive Officer Richard Egan, “The county specifically denies it was liable to Mr. Stone and did not admit liability as part of this settlement.”
Egan said the settlement amount will be paid by the county’s insurers — Trindel Insurance Fund and the California State Association of Counties Excess Insurance Authority — and not by the county’s general fund. He added the county’s insurance premiums may increase slightly due to the settlement.
In addition to releasing all claims, Stone agrees he will neither seek nor accept future employment with Lassen County. Stone also agrees to be responsible for any taxes, and the settlement satisfies any and all liens he may have against the county.
The Lassen County Times received an email from Elisa W. Ungerman, Stone’s attorney, today, Thursday, April 24, regarding the settlement of the lawsuit. As part of the email, Ungerman wrote, “Please consider this our ‘official comment’ to the settlement between Stone and the county.”
“A lesson: Employers with ‘at will’ employees may not illegally terminate their employees,” Ungerman wrote. “Even ‘at will’ employees have statutory protections. The county terminated Mr. (Tom) Stone very soon after he publicly disclosed the (alleged) illegal use of restricted HOME funds that was apparently occurring for years without any accountability and publicly stated emphatically that the (alleged) illegal use of funds was an intentional breach of the public’s trust.
“Not long before Mr. Stone’s disclosure, supervisor (Jim) Chapman publicly stated at a board meeting that Mr. Stone ‘was the best thing to happen to this county in a long time’ and supervisors (Bob) Pyle and Chapman publicly rated Mr. Stone’s performance ‘an A+.’ Then, barely a few weeks later, these same supervisors voted to terminate Stone.
“The only thing that occurred between Stone’s comments and Stone’s termination was his public disclosure of the (alleged) noncompliance with/violation of state and federal regulations that implicated some long-term employees. It is illegal to retaliate against any employee who discloses to a government agency its own non-compliance with regulations. The supervisors’ questionable reasons for the termination did not withstand even minimal scrutiny, as supervisor (Larry) Wosick pointed out shortly after the termination.
“Public policy favors settlements rather than tying up court resources for weeks. This settlement will allow everyone to move on from the mistake certain supervisors made. Hopefully this settlement will also help to clear Mr. Stone’s name. His abrupt termination was wholly unnecessary and a loss to Lassen County. Those supervisors who voted to terminate Mr. Stone squandered an opportunity for a better functioning, transparent and honest Lassen County government.”