Tuesday, May 21, 2002
Claims Board Advises County to Pay $450,000 to Settle Suit Over Demotion
By NAZANIN AGANGE, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles County Claims Board yesterday recommended that the county pay $450,000 to settle a suit by a former Department of Children and Family Services official who claims she was demoted because she prompted an investigation into misconduct by the department’s former head.
Rebecca Lizarraga accuses the DCFS of violating her freedom of speech, wrongful demotion, and creating a hostile work environment.
The case was initially filed in federal court, but was dismissed and is currently on appeal. Lizarraga filed a second state lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court, which is pending.
In the filing, Lizarraga claims that in 1997 she was offered a position as section head of the Out of Home Care Evaluation Unit, which investigates allegations of abuse at county foster homes, despite not meeting the minimum standards for the position. She declined the offer and was given another position in the unit.
In November 1997, she was appointed as acting section head while the section head was on a leave of absence. Upon returning, the former section head was appointed to a different position and Lizarraga remained acting section head.
Lizarraga’s complaint alleges that in October 1998 she learned of allegations of abuse and neglect at the home of Sandra Rodriguez, a prominent member of the community and a friend of Peter Digre, then the DCFS director.
Lizarraga alleges she launched an investigation that uncovered scores of violations and possible misconduct by to Digre. A subsequent Sheriff’s Department investigation found no wrongdoing by Digre.
The complaint asserts that the foster home’s closure was authorized in December 1998 by the DCFS Deputy Director of Bureau Executive Services Paul Freedlund, in the absence of two superiors, including Digre. Freedlund was contacted within a day by Digre and told he did not have the authority to close the home, according to the complaint.
A DCFS spokeswoman told the MetNews she was unable to access information on the home’s current status.
Lizarraga was demoted in April 1999. She was offered and accepted another position at the DCFS, but filed a grievance and did not return to work after one day at the new position.
Lizarraga had an outstanding record and “numerous accolades” in her time at DCFS, according to her complaint, which the county does not dispute. But the department maintains that Lizarraga was demoted because of a county Board of Supervisors investigation that substantiated that she and several other DCFS employees were not qualified for the positions they held.
Deputy County Counsel Louis Aguilar said the settlement amount was agreed to by both parties. Aguilar said he could not comment further than to say county counsel recommended settling the case based on the “potential for a jury to find a ... violation.”
Counsel for Lizarraga, Dan Stormer of Hadsell & Stormer, could not be reached yesterday. Information on Lizarraga’s current employment could not be obtained.
The Board of Supervisors is to consider the settlement at its June 4 meeting, Aguilar said. The claims board can authorize settlements up to $100,000, but payments above that amount require approval by the board.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company