Dr. Van A. Peña.(photo: Monica Lam, California Watch)
Problems at the state’s Sonoma center for developmentally disabled patients were so bad that it was stripped of its license to operate last December after a series of stories detailing abuse and incompetence almost won California Watch and reporter Ryan Gabrielson a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
However, long before California Watch began a series of stories on Sonoma and four other similar state board-and-care-institutions run by the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), Petaluma physician Dr. Van Peña, a 10-year employee, was raising a ruckus about conditions there.
But instead of getting an award 12 years ago, he got fired.
Last week, the whistleblower received a measure of vindication when a U.S. District Court jury awarded him $800,000 in financial damages and $500,000 for emotional distress. The nine-member jury in Oakland unanimously concluded that he had been wrongfully terminated.
Dr. Peña’s legal odyssey began in 2000, a year after he and Ed Contreras, the center’s former police chief, reported “gross medical negligence” to center officials. When their complaints went unheeded, they took their story to the media and state lawmakers. In October of that year, Dr. Peña filed his first legal complaint that he was being retaliated against because of his actions.
The doctor was put on administrative leave in 2001 and fired in April, allegedly for refusing to help resuscitate a 90-year-old patient dying of kidney failure. By 2004, the court had dismissed his lawsuit and he appealed. The appellate court kicked it back down to the District Court, where the doctor lost again before a hung jury in 2009.
Trial Judge Claudia Wilken refused to allow evidence in court that Dr. Peña had reported allegations of patient abuse and medical malpractice. Two years later, an appellate court ruled that the judge shouldn’t have excluded the evidence and gave the doctor another shot at a jury trial.
Last Monday, the jury saw it his way.
When the Department of Public Health (DPH) decertified the 500-patient Sonoma Developmental Center last year, investigators detailed dozens of cases where patients were put at risk of injury and, sometimes, death. The decertification threatened to cut off millions of dollars in federal funding for the largest center operated by the DDS and put at risk care for patients who are incapable of living with families or in group homes. The patients suffer from severe autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and other serious maladies.
California Watch wrote about dozens of women who were sexually assaulted inside the state’s five regional centers, a caregiver suspected of tasering a dozen patients and other incidents that were barely investigated by the center’s inhouse policing unit. The Office of Protective Services (OPS) was the subject of a scathing report (pdf) in July from the California State Auditor.
Not only could OPS not solve crimes, it couldn’t establish cases strong enough for prosecutors to pursue. After OPS got through with cases, only 82 out of 4,345 allegations were deemed strong enough to send to prosecutors.