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A Superior Court judge has ruled that a former San Diego County Office of Education employee who filed a wrongful termination suit against the agency must be given more than $200,000 in back pay and medical premium reimbursements — more than 11 times as much as the agency initially sought to pay him.

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 that handles lawsuits for schools.

He was terminated more than three years ago and has been locked in a lengthy legal battle with the office since then. Hartnett claims he was fired for blowing the whistle on conflicts of interest at the agency; the office says he was fired for negligence, insubordination and dishonesty. An internal commission found that Hartnett’s termination was “for good cause and not excessive.”

The same judge ruled nearly two years ago that Hartnett should be reinstated and awarded back pay to the date of his firing, concluding that the office did not investigate Hartnett’s claims about “insider dealings” before his firing. The judge didn’t address whether Hartnett was justified in those claims.

We’ve reported on a several issues that Hartnett raised in his suit, including the fact that another employee has advised her boss on whether to retain attorneys for personnel cases, something that routinely led to business for her husband’s law firm. The issue is now being investigated by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

The County Office of Education gave Hartnett less than $18,000 in back pay after his earlier reinstatement. He took the office back to court, arguing it had underpaid him. The key issue was whether the office could dock Hartnett for time when he was medically or psychiatrically disabled from working.

The court ruled that it could not, concluding that his stress was directly related to disputes with his employer. The judge did not settle larger issues that remain in the Hartnett litigation, including whether the alleged conflicts of interest were real and whether Hartnett was retaliated against as a whistleblower. The County Office of Education declined to comment on the ruling.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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