Jury Settlement Awards Whistleblower $613K in Lawsuit Against City of Oakland

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A federal jury on Wednesday awarded $613,302 to Ms. Lawanna Preston, former Employee Relations Director of the City of Oakland, affirming her claim against the city for termination in retaliation for disclosing and refusing to participate in unlawful acts.

 

Deanna Santana, former City Administrator of Oakland and now City Administrator of Sunnyvale, made the decision to terminate her.

 

In early 2012, Ms. Preston refused Santana’s order to approve a report on the Rainbow Teen Center if it included language recommending criminal charges against Councilmember Desley Brooks.

 

Brooks had spearheaded the teen center in her district in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Oakland. The criminal charges would have targeted Brooks, the only African American woman on the Council, although other Councilmembers had admitted to similar acts to those Brooks was accused of.

 

Ms. Preston believed this was racially discriminatory.

 

In June 2013, Preston told Santana that the Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Reed had agreed to an extension of a term in the Firefighters’ Union contract, without Council approval. This was a violation of both city rules and state law under the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, which controls public agency negotiations.

 

Reed testified that Santana instructed her to enter this agreement.

 

Finally, on Oc. 1, 2013, Ms. Preston defied Santana’s order to conceal from the City Council the fact that the city had been failing to collect union dues from part time employees who were members of the Service Employees International Union.

 

Less than 40 hours later, Santana fired Ms. Preston, recording only that the termination was for “lack of work.”

 

Among those who took the stand in favor of Preston were Longtime California Assemblymember Sandre Swanson, and current California Senate candidate, who testified to Preston’s excellent work as Employee Relations Director.

 

Phillip Lamont Ewell, former Oakland City Administrator, a former Fire Chief, and City Administrator of other cities for decades, also testified to Ms. Preston’s outstanding job performance.

 

Fred Blackwell, president of San Francisco Foundation, testified to the same.

 

Dan Siegel and Sonya Z. Mehta of Siegel & Yee, an Oakland civil rights firm, represented Preston.

 

In response to the verdict, Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said, “We respect the jury process. However, we do not agree with the jury’s verdict.”

 

“Plaintiff was an “at will” department head in the City of Oakland,” she continued. “That means the City Administrator could terminate her for any reason or no reason at all and without notice. Plaintiff had the burden of proving that the city terminated her for unlawful reasons. We believe the evidence was clear that the city was fully within its rights to terminate plaintiff.”

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