Friday, June 7, 2013

Warren County pays $90,000 to settle whistleblower suit

On April 29, 2013, the County of Warren agreed to pay $90,000 to a Department of Human Services employee who claimed that she was retaliated against because she reported misconduct to County officials.

In her suit, Barbara Kahler, an employee of the Department's Division of Temporary Assistance and Social Services ("TASS"), alleged various improprieties against TASS Director Lorraine Scheibener and Sharon Ciavarella, Kahler's direct supervisor. 

Among the allegations is that an unnamed supervisor asked Kahler to "bring a narcotic medication to work for [that] supervisor." When Kahler reported this incident to Scheibener, Scheibener allegedly told her to "pretend the incident never happened as the supervisor could lose her job."

Kahler also alleges that she was told by Ciavarella to backdate several food stamp benefits applications.  She claims that after she rebuffed Ciavarella's demand, she received an "increased workload" and was otherwise retaliated against.

Kahler also alleges that she reported to both Ciavarella and Scheibener that "various co-workers were arriving to work late, leaving work early, taking long lunches and otherwise not performing their assigned tasks during prescribed work hours."  According to the lawsuit, Ciavarella and Scheibener told Kahler's co-workers about her reports, causing them to "create a hostile work environment." 

Also named in the suit was assistant supervisor Jill Campana.

As part of the settlement, the County agreed to amend Kahler's resignation from "not in good standing" to "in good standing."

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

The case is captioned Kahler v. County of Warren, Superior Court Docket No. WRN-L-419-11 and Kahler's attorney was John McDonnell of Washington.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Kahler's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $90,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Warren or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Warren or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Kahler $90,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.