Sonoma Developmental Center suit settled for $1.3M

SONOMA DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER will have to pay Dr. Van Peña $1.34 million after it fired him in 2001. David Bolling/Index-Tribune

SONOMA DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER will have to pay Dr. Van Peña $1.34 million after it fired him in 2001. David Bolling/Index-Tribune


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.

Peña claimed that Contreras told him the SDC executive director even ordered the chief to “go out and find some dirt on Peña.”

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge in 2011 and the case eventually returned to the district court, where the unanimous verdict was entered for Peña.

Looking back on his own experience in 2005, Contreras said at the time, “The one puzzling thing is that no SDC or DDS administrator was held accountable for their actions. Those who were involved are still employed at the facility or in Sacramento or have been promoted.”

That pattern, according to Peña, persists today.

“Most of the people at SDC are not bad people. Most of them are hard working, under-paid and caring people. But there are a few level of care people who are just evil, and the problem is that, at SDC, it comes down to fear. Those people only make, at best, $20 an hour. They know they will be retaliated against if they speak up, so the place is controlled by fear. ‘If I go along, I’ll get promoted, if I don’t go along, I’ll be crushed.’ Developmental centers breed this culture.”

Peña now has a family medicine practice in Petaluma where he provides a form of counseling along with palliative care and patients use words like “transcendence physician” and “best doctor I ever knew” in describing him online.

He refers to his former SDC patients as “people who can’t speak, they can’t fight, they’re completely helpless. What better place for people to go who wish to harm people.”

Asked if he thought abuse was still going on at SDC, he answered adamantly, “Of course it’s still going on. Why? Because the system is still the way it was before. At one level, closing it would be just great. But then, what would you do with those people? You would condemn them to death. The state should change the management. Not the policies and procedures. They’re pretty good. But they’re not followed. When I was there, I was told, ‘There’s your way and there’s the state’s way.’ If I were king for a day, I’d fire all the managers and start over.”

For his part, Peña’s attorney King – who also represented Contreras – said he opposes closing SDC. “Ninety-five to 98 percent of the people at SDC are doing a good job, working extremely hard, caring for a very vulnerable and difficult population. They aren’t the problem.”

One enduring problem for Dr. Peña is the black mark on his listing in the National Practitioner Data Base in which the state has entered the accusations that he “refused essential care to a patient” (“CPR was the wrong thing to do, immoral, there’s no way to bring back a 92-year-old woman with no kidneys” he insists.), that he is dishonest, and untrustworthy.

Those charges, refuted by the jury verdict, can only be eliminated, he said, by the party that entered them. The only impact from those comments at present is emotional, but, Peña added, were he to revise his malpractice insurance, his rates could well go up, and were he to apply for a job with an HMO like Kaiser, he might not be hired.

A request for comment on the case, and the data base listing, from the state’s lead trial attorney, Terry Penne, had not been answered at press time.

In the end, Peña said of his victory, “I don’t feel any joy in this at all. It was an ugly battle. But maybe it will help the families of those patients in SDC to step up and go to bat for their loved ones.”


  • Lee

    Dr Pena, You sure can talk the talk now, but I knew you when you walked the walk. You can’t cast the first stone.

  • Dee Test

    It is obvious from the description of this legal vindication for this Dr., and the other fired SDC employee who was vindicated, that the administration of SDC has been involved with coverups and vilification of whistle-blowers for a long time. All of those specific administrators, including Dr. Judith Bjorndal – who was apparently instrumental in actually creating a false (career ending) attack of this man – should be held personally accountable. When the administrators of a public institution are so invested in covering up their own flaws – rather than honestly addressing them – that they would viciously attack the whistle-blowers personally, they have crossed the line. They need to personally take responsibility for their despicable actions.

  • Phineas Worthington

    Its unfortunate that the legal system is so impacted that a case lasting 12 years qualifies as a speedy trial in the minds of many.

    Its also unfortunate that so many people think there is no option other than the false dichotomy of keeping the state hospital or just letting people die.

    Its most unfortunate that after so long and so much human and monetary capital have been spent on this case, that the SDC criminality problem still persists in victimizing innocents who cannot defend themselves. Just tragic all around.

  • Mary O’Riordan

    I served for nine years as President of the Parents Association at the Sonoma Developmental Center. I cannot speak for Dr. Pena or Mr. Contreras as I came on just about when all that
    happened. I never question anything they have said because I do know from time to time bad things happen, but the unfortunate thing about all this is what gets publicized is a radical difference between what is written and given publicity and the actual norm at the Sonoma Developmental Center. Those who do something unprofessional or abusive are the few and they eventually are reported and removed from there. The majority of the staff at SDC love their work and love the residents they care for. I met so many people who had worked at SDC for over 50 years and several of them have told me that when they first came to work there they didn’t think they could handle it and would only stay until they found a better job. Like one person said to me one day, SDC is magic – after a month working here I couldn’t leave. This is typical of the stories I have heard. As Father Leslie, the chaplain at SDC, often says, for the people who work at SDC “their work is not just a job, it is a calling”. Personally, I never saw any behavior that even resembled abuse or mistreatment, but I do agree that there is a culture of fear and that is not only by the staff but also by the family members of the residents. When I first became president of the Parents Association I was appalled by the statements I often heard even by members of the board of PHA. Statement, such as, “they will come after us”. So, even they were at time afraid to speak out. This is no way to provide for our most precious, innocent developmentally disabled loved ones. It needs to be an atmosphere of trust and caring and compassion and joy. I can’t say enough for the staff whom I met and the way they provided such wonderful compassionate care and love in spite of all the dysfunction going on around them.
    In my opinion, this is the time to look at all this and do what is necessary to make SDC the wonderful place it was meant to be when it was established years ago by two families. The Task Force that is meeting in Sacramento needs to do much more research and interview many more parents and other family members both in the developmental centers and the group homes, interview the staff in both of these place, interview physicians and psychologists in the developmental centers and the nurses and psych techs and all those who provide hands-on care. Sonoma Developmental Center is licensed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Social Services and on the federal level, so all in all it is much safer than the alternatives. I am reminded of some of the cases I heard from families during my years as president: the woman who called me one day saying she had complications of diabetes and was in a wheel chair and her daughter had been in 7 group homes and had been abused in every one of them. At this time, her daughter had fallen in a group home in Santa Rosa and had broken her hip. She said she had been told that the ambulance was not called for over 4 hours as the vendor had left instructions not to call 911 because it cost too much. She then was taken to the hospital in Santa Rosa and then to the hospital in Sonoma and she wanted to get her into SDC. Since she was away from the group home for over two weeks, they could not hold her place at that home. The Regional Center social worker she said told her if she sent her daughter to SDC, she would lose her job. She then called a legislator that she knew at one time and her daughter was admitted to SDC – her daughter had severe bed soars and spent months in the Acute Care section of SDC. Her mother died some time after that. Another family who found their daughter laying practically naked on the floor so medicated that she wasn’t able to talk. They also were told not to send her to SDC but when they did they found the professional care she needed – she now advocates for herself and says she will never leave SDC. I will never forget something a social worker at SDC told me about a follow-up visit she made to four men who had been removed from SDC and sent to a group home in San Francisco. They told her they wanted to get sick so they would be sent back to the home. Their home was SDC. Another one I would like to mention is when a lady called me one day sobbing after seeing her severely developmentally disabled son in hand cuffs at the Santa Rosa jail. She also had been told that SDC was not the place for him, but out of desperation he was placed there and as she said, they cannot close that place and my son will never leave it.
    So, the story of SDC is complex and there are many different sides to it. I will never in any way deny of condone abuse or even impatience with these previous people. It is our privilege to know them and to serve them. They change people! Most people who have met them either as a family member or as a professional career will tell you that they see life in a different way and have reached a deeper level of humanity – their gift to us is priceless. So, again let’s not let the negative horrible things that happen from time to time paint a picture of SDC as the norm – it is not – the centralized services are necessary if we are to care appropriately for their needs – the campus is beautiful and as one person said one time on a tour “this is a place of healing” Let’s embrace all that and let’s fix what needs fixing and make it a place to be admired and respected with the very best resources available.