Jury awards $1.1 million to Sonoma Valley boys home whistleblower
A Sonoma County jury has awarded $1.1 million to the plaintiff in a whistleblower case against the Hanna Boys Center, finding the former clinical director was wrongly terminated for speaking up about bullying, drug use and other unaddressed concerns at the home for troubled boys.
Tim Norman, who worked as the center’s head of clinical care for 31 years before his November 2016 dismissal, said the verdict came as a huge relief after many years of stress and a three-week civil trial.
But Norman, 73, said he also was struck by the contrast between the speed with which the jury understood his plight and what he called the failure of the institution’s own trustees to respond to concerns with direct implications for client health and safety.
“That’s the thing that is very unclear in my mind,” Norman said. “They didn’t seem to be paying attention to their fiduciary responsibility. Because, they’re really in charge.”
Norman’s case against the venerable institution, which is associated with the Santa Rosa diocese of the Catholic Church, was filed in January 2017 at the start of a difficult year for Hanna that included revelations of sexual misconduct involving two staff members, several related civil suits, and finally a move by the state to revoke its operating license.
The California Community Care Licensing Division ultimately stayed revocation of the license, instead imposing conditions on the facility and a three-year period of probation.
But the totality of the circumstances has taken a toll on Hanna’s reputation.
Particularly high profile has been the case involving Kevin Thorpe, Norman’s replacement as clinical care director and a 14-year employee of the Hanna Boys Center.
Thorpe, now 40, was arrested last June in connection with child sex abuse allegations dating to 2007 and may have molested as many as seven young people, according to the license revocation documents. He remains jailed and faces trial on multiple felony counts involving four victims, all teenagers when the alleged abuse began.
But Norman, 73, said it is inaccurate to view Hanna’s troubles as starting with Thorpe.
Some of the same problems Norman tried to bring to light three and four years ago have been reflected in deficiencies cited by the California Community Care Licensing Division. The agency has slapped Hanna with 19 citations since mid-2015 related to everything from insufficient bed linens to improperly stored leftovers and cleaning supplies, to staffing shortages, inadequate night-time supervision and a “culture of disrespect” that resulted in bullying and physical aggression, according to public licensing records.
“This is so incredible for me to describe,” Norman said. “We’ve never had a citation previous to this particular time.”
CEO Brian Farragher, who took the helm of the boys center in mid 2014, conceded the past few years have been rocky ones.
But Farragher said a wholesale shift in operational philosophy is to blame. The facility and its staff transitioned to a trauma-based treatment protocol that eschews punitive discipline - deemed damaging to young people largely raised in traumatizing circumstances.
The new approach is centered on building relationships and working through trauma and behaviors that result. But it’s harder than pronouncing punishment, Farragher said, requiring staffers “to develop new skills, to puzzle through problems, to restore connection,” and “sometimes people move on.”
“That has been destabilizing for us in the organization,” he said. “I feel like we’re on the other side of that now.”
He disputed any assertion “that we did anything inappropriate or unlawful” in Norman’s dismissal, saying, “Obviously we did what we thought was right and in the best interest of the organization.”
By a vote of 10-to-2, jurors disagreed, deliberating 71/2 hours before awarding Norman $600,000 in past and future wage loss and $500,000 for pain and suffering, his attorney, Victor Thuesen, said.
The jury did not award punitive damages and chose not to confirm two other complaints in Norman’s lawsuit because, the foreman later told Thuesen, it would have been duplicative of jurors’ finding in the whistleblowing cause.
At issue in the case were a series of exchanges between Norman, Farragher and other senior management about rising instances of physical and psychological intimidation and abuse involving students, the lawsuit states. Some of the boys reportedly complained about being victimized, but there appeared to be no consequences as a result.
Two meetings were convened in the fall of 2014 after Norman emailed Farragher expressing “concern about deteriorating safety” among staff members. Staffers said they also “did not feel Farragher was providing them the support they needed in dealing with the bullying and violence taking place” and reported that Farragher told them, “If you can’t get on board, get off the bus.”
In an April 2015 letter to Farragher, Norman cited continued concern about serious fights, assaults and injuries, and said he had already talked with two trustees about the matter.
Farragher’s response, according to the suit, was to suspend Norman for three days and bar him from campus, ensuring he could not attend the trustees’ semi-annual meeting.
A month later, Norman was informed he was prohibited from taking his misgivings to the trustees and would be terminated if he did so again, the lawsuit states.
In September 2016, a local pediatrician and regent for Hanna Boys Center called Trustee John Quinn about his own concerns, in particular reports of bullying and violence, including a sexual assault case between two students.
At a special Oct. 15, 2016, meeting to address safety issues and other considerations, Farragher spoke about four situations in particular, including two instances of drug overdose and a case in which one boy was reportedly assaulted with a lint brush while he was sleeping. When then-Chairman Bill Schrader asked for Norman’s perspective, promising there would be no reprisals for speaking candidly, Norman said he thought Farragher had minimized serious incidents he proceeded to detail.
Norman was fired 23 days later.
Lawrence King, Thuesen’s co-counsel, said there was “a clear pattern” of retaliation each time Norman spoke up.
Trustee John Quinn, who spoke against dismissing Norman at the time Farragher sought the board’s support, said he feared even then the case could end up in court. Farragher had told him only weeks earlier that he “was very pleased” with Norman and that they “were on good terms.”
“I think the jurors are sending Hanna a lesson in how to deal with personnel issues,” said Quinn, a retired San Francisco school administrator.
But Quinn said he was very concerned about the potential for the verdict to color public perception of a 73-year-old organization that has turned a corner from several years ago.
“It’s a very sad state of affairs,” he said.