Monday, September 30, 2019

California ABC facing three separate whistleblower lawsuits

California's department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is trying to ram through a controversial program to force restaurant servers to pass a licensing test, is currently facing three separate, active whistleblower lawsuits in state superior court in Sacramento.

If the allegations of its ex-employees are true, the ABC's legal department is a place where vindictive leaders exact retribution on its employees for attempting to follow the law. If there was only one lawsuit, it would be easy to dismiss it as complaints of a disgruntled employee. But these are 3 lawsuits, two completely unrelated, filed by attorneys who worked for years for the organization.

Here's a short summary of each lawsuit.

Adriana Ruelas vs. California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Filed in Oct. 2017, this is the most troubling case, and yet it is also not the only time this plaintiff has made accusations like this against an employer.

Ruelas worked for ABC as a Legislative Officer from 2013 until she resigned in 2016. She claims she "witnessed years of racist, sexist, and homophobic statements by ABC Director Timothy Gorsuch and other high level employees within the Department." Ruelas says she was "called a criminal due to her race," and told her child was an "anchor baby." She also claims that at a meeting regarding licensing issues related to a Long Beach Gay Pride event, she "observed Gorsuch mock the event and simulate oral sex by pushing his tongue into the inside of his cheek repeatedly."

(Note that one of the biggest problems with the ABC's intended plan for training servers is the callous disregard for people who do not speak English as a first language, and for restaurant workers with low incomes.)

She also alleges that she suggested that ABC only enforced a law against "drink solicitation" -- where a bar uses employees to seduce patrons into ordering them a drink -- in bars frequented by Latinos. She alleges that a top ABC official told her "only Latinos violate this law" and that Ruelas was probably herself a "B-girl" (the term used by the agency to describe drink solicitors.)


Note for all three of these complaints: Gorsuch retired in 2016 and was replaced by a triumvirate from the California Highway Patrol. Ruelas' lawsuit claims "Gorsuch was forced to resign." The Sacramento Bee implies that Gorsuch resigned voluntarily in this story.

Ruelas filed a whistleblower complaint. She claims she was harassed to the point that she quit.

However, less than three months after suing the ABC, she immediately turned around and filed a similar complaint against her next employer, state Senator Tony Mendoza. Here is the Sacramento Bee story on that.

Currently the Ruelas lawsuit is set for trial in September 2020.

Heather Hoganson vs. California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Filed in May 2018, this case shows why people fear the ABC.

Hoganson began working for ABC as a Trial Counsel in 2008. ABC maintains its own set of administrative courts, with which to prosecute license holders like convenience stores and restaurants, and its own administrative judges and lawyers.

Hoganson claims that after Ruelas resigned and filed her complaint, ABC's leadership team became "obsessed with an anonymous comment regarding drink solicitation" -- Ruelas' issue -- that was sent to ABC during its appeal for public comment. Hoganson claims the new leadership (post-Gorsuch, former CHP lieutenant Sunshine Garside was co-acting deputy of ABC) suspected that she, Hoganson, wrote the comment. Hoganson claims she was interrogated about it for four hours.

Hoganson claims she said she knew nothing about the source of the comment, but that "the comment was legal, regardless of its source."

"In a Kafkaesque touch, (Hoganson's) truthful answers provoked ABC management to charge her with insubordination," the lawsuit reads.

Soon after, Hoganson says she was told to collect her belongings and leave the building, as she was being placed on paid administrative leave.

Hoganson interviewed with other state agencies and landed, she claims, a job in California's Secretary of State office. However, she claims ABC did not immediately release her from her ABC job, as is required for lateral moves within state government.

Hoganson claims that Garside told the Secretary of State's office that Hoganson "was the target of an investigation," and the job offer was withdrawn.

Ten days later, she claims, she was told to report to the ABC, where she was fired.

This case has a settlement conference scheduled for March 2020.

Dean Lueders vs. California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Though it was filed around the same time, September 2017, this case is unrelated to the first two.

Lueders was hired by ABC as an attorney in 2001.

In 2006, ABC had a major legal screwup. In a case against a bar owner named Daniel Quintanar, ABC allowed ex parte communication between the ABC prosecutors and the ABC Director, who held the ability to deliver a final judgment in the case. "Ex parte" communication means the defendant's attorneys did not see it. This is a no-no in most courts. As a result, ABC was forced to dismiss more than 200 cases, because California courts said ABC violated due process.

Lueders helped draft a General Order for ABC to avoid this happening again.

In Oct. 2015, Lueders filed a whistleblower complaint that ABC had probably violated the General Order by not including all the relevant documents in files sent to the Director. He claims he was yelled at and accused of insubordination. He says he filed whistleblower complaints to the ABC Director and Deputy Director about the threatened discipline.

Lueders says ABC did investigate his whistleblower retaliation claims, but in August 2016 he says he was placed on administrative leave and his office and personal belongings were searched. In September 2016 he was fired.

A judge will hear a motion for summary judgment in this case next month; a conference to set a trial date has been tentatively scheduled for November.

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