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A Superior Court judge ruled this week that a former San Diego County Office of Education employee who filed a wrongful termination suit against the agency must be reinstated and awarded back pay to the date of his firing.

Rodger Hartnett once helped oversee litigation as a claims coordinator for the Risk Management Joint Powers Authority, a public agency run through the County Office of Education that handles lawsuits for school districts. He was terminated in August 2007. He claimed in his lawsuit that he was fired for complaining that one firm, Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, received a disproportionate share of legal work “based on personal relationships” in the office rather than merit.

The claims were central to this voiceofsandiego.org story investigating the relationship between the firm and the agency.

An internal Office of Education commission found that Hartnett’s termination was “for good cause and not excessive” and that he was not the victim of retaliation. The agency has stated that Hartnett was fired for negligence, insubordination and dishonesty, including discussing a confidential file with an outside attorney and lying about it.

But Superior Court Judge Steven Denton ruled on Wednesday that the termination was not done by the book. He concluded that the Office of Education commission “did not proceed in the manner required by law because it failed to conduct an investigation prior to the hearing.” Denton did not address any of the “substantive issues” of the case, such as whether Hartnett is justified in his claims about “insider dealings” to Stutz Artiano.

The judge concluded that Hartnett should be immediately reinstated and is “entitled to an award of back pay from the date of his termination through reinstatement.” Hartnett estimates that that payout could total nearly $250,000.

“I’m going to go to work on Monday with the order (from the judge) in hand,” Hartnett said. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. They’ve made it clear they don’t want me back.” He added, “Their options now are to welcome me back, try to fire me again, or file an appeal of the ruling.”

I left a message for County Office of Education spokesman Jim Esterbrooks to find out how the agency plans to respond and how it interprets the ruling.

EMILY ALPERT

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