A Petaluma doctor who spent a decade at the Sonoma Developmental Center, and another 12 years fighting a retaliatory firing for reporting patient abuse, finally prevailed in federal district court Nov. 14 when a jury returned a unanimous verdict awarding Dr. Van Peña $1.34 million.
Peña was also awarded all legal fees, which his attorney Lawrence J. King said would amount to “north of $1.5 million more.”
Peña, now 69, was a staff doctor when he became alarmed in the late 1990s at the frequency of injuries and signs of abuse among the patient population at SDC. Even more alarming, he said, was the lack of competent investigation of abuse, along with evidence of cover-up by administrators at the facility.
“They didn’t want the information I was promulgating – assaults, rapes, all sorts of abuse – to be public,” Peña said last week.
Peña was placed on administrative leave for five months, and subsequently fired in July of 2001, ostensibly for, among other things, failing to provide CPR to a 92-year-old woman suffering renal failure. The SDC medical director at the time, Judith Bjorndal, charged that efforts should have been made to revive the patient, even though her guardian had provided specific instructions not to resuscitate the woman. Peña argued CPR would provide no medical benefit and might cause additional trauma, including broken ribs and organ damage. And the woman’s medical crisis, he insisted, was a result of medical malpractice when she was given the wrong drug and lapsed into a coma.
That pivotal case came in the midst of a flurry of abuse reports that were brought to the attention of SDC police chief Ed Contreras, who also raised the alarm to both legislators in Sacramento and the local press.
In 2000, both Contreras and Peña met extensively with then-Index-Tribune Editor and Publisher Bill Lynch, who published a five-part series detailing abuse cases and evidence of both incompetent investigations by the in-house SDC police, part of the state’s Office of Protective Services, and efforts to cover them up.
Contreras went on record with accounts of what happened while he was at SDC from 1995 to 2002 and found what he described as hundreds of incidents of resident abuse, suspicious injuries, assaults, sexual assaults and deaths, most poorly investigated or not investigated at all. In many cases, administrators kept Contreras from crime scenes within the institution, or only allowed him in after the scenes had been cleaned of evidence, he claimed.
Like Peña, Contreras was fired and, like Peña, he filed a lawsuit against SDC and the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).
Eventually, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that SDC administrators and DDS violated Contreras’ civil rights, and he accepted a settlement of $950,000.
In Peña’s case, his claim of retaliation for being a whistle-blower followed a circuitous course, with a first trial resulting in a hung jury (6-2 against him) when the trial judge refused to allow evidence regarding abuses, medical malpractice and cover-ups at SDC. As a result, the jury did not know the heart of Peña’s claim, that he was fired for reporting patient abuse that exposed SDC to critical public scrutiny and lawsuits.