SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The San Francisco city attorney's former top trial lawyer can go to trial with her claim that she was fired in retaliation for investigating a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme, a state judge ruled.
Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer rejected a pre-trial motion by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to have Joanne Hoeper's suit dismissed.
Herrera spokesman Matt Dorsey, who has called Hoeper a "disgruntled former employee" with "baseless allegations," called the June 2 ruling a "fairly common response to a fairly common motion."
Hoeper's attorney, Stephen Murphy, reacted to the ruling, saying, "We're pleased that the judge found that Jo's case was a legitimate one."
"Despite what the city constantly says about her being a disgruntled former employee, she has a valid case," he said.
Hoeper sued Herrera and the City and County of San Francisco in January 2105, saying the claims bureau in Herrera's office paid more than $19 million to property owners and plumbing companies for sewer work that was neither necessary nor the city's responsibility.
The money paid for damage that city-owned trees supposedly caused to sewer lines running from private property to the city's sewer system, Hoeper said.
Hoeper said her 20-year career as the chief trial deputy at the city attorney's office ended when her investigation got too close to Herrera.
At first, Hoeper said, Herrera encouraged the investigation, but he fired her when she determined that the city was under no obligation to pay to fix or replace the sewer lines, which are called laterals.
She said in her lawsuit that plumbing companies filed false claims with the city and that the assistant chief of the claims bureau at the city attorney's office authorized the illegal work in exchange for financial benefits for him and his family.
When she came up with evidence of bribes and kickbacks, Hoeper said, she was promptly replaced as the chief trial deputy and transferred to the district attorney's office, and Herrera shut down her investigation.
In his motion for summary judgment, Herrera argued that Hoeper's lawsuit relies on information protected by the attorney-client privilege.
But Judge Ulmer ruled that Hoeper was acting as an investigator — not as an attorney — when she reported the alleged improprieties in sewer contracts.
"The City's sweeping notions of privilege would bar most retaliation claims by attorney employees," Ulmer wrote in his order.
He said the California Supreme Court directs trial courts to use other tools, such as protective orders and sealing of documents, so that attorney-employees may sue for retaliation without violating attorney-client privilege.
Herrera also argued that Hoeper's January 2015 lawsuit was filed too late, but Ulmer said the clock began to run in January 2014, when Hoeper was fired.
Ulmer found Hoeper's filings strong enough to go to trial. He called it "largely undisputed" that Herrera's longtime friend and political adviser told Hoeper: "'I won't stand for this' and 'you'll be sorry' for starting the investigation."
Herrera spokesman Dorsey said Monday that Hoeper has an "ax to grind against former co-workers." He called her investigation of the plumbing contracts "a self-serving fishing expedition that found zero evidence of wrongdoing."
Hoeper is represented by Stephen Murphy, who was unavailable for comment Monday.
Jury selection is to begin July 5.
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