San Francisco Pays $725,000 Settlement in Whistleblower Retaliation Case Against Chief Suhr

“After a long and hard-fought struggle, she’s finally achieved resolution of her case, and she’s pleased with the results”Randy Strauss Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer attorney

In a resounding victory, our client Kelly O’Haire’s case settled for $725,000 just as jury selection was about to begin in her trial for whistleblower retaliation against the City of San Francisco and San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) Chief Gregory Suhr. The lawsuit was originally filed in San Francisco Superior Court on May 15, 2013. Ms. O’Haire was an internal affairs attorney for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). In 2009, Ms. O’Haire was assigned a disciplinary case against then Deputy Chief Greg Suhr. She reported to her supervisors that she believed Suhr had violated the Penal Code when he failed to promptly report and arrest a domestic violence offender. Suhr did not arrest the perpetrator or take the victim to get medical assistance even though the victim’s collarbone was broken during the incident and the abuser was later charged with attempted murder. Although Suhr responded to the incident in a police vehicle, his involvement was not discovered until the SFPD was conducting its follow up investigation.

The City of San Francisco’s Explanation for Kelly O’Haire’s Wrongful Termination

Two and a half weeks after Greg Suhr was appointed Chief of Police in 2011, he fired Kelly O’Haire. The City contended that Kelly O’Haire was “dismissed” as part of budget cuts at the Police Department.

The City Attorney fought tooth and nail to have the case dismissed without a jury trial. After two unsuccessful demurrers, the City tried to have the case dismissed on summary judgment. Judge Ernest Goldsmith decisively refused to grant summary judgment of the lawsuit against Suhr and the City of San Francisco. Judge Goldsmith reasoned that a jury could come to a conclusion that Ms. O’Haire was a victim of retaliation and wrongful termination because, among other things involved in the case, “the timing of the termination decision was suspicious.”

After failing to get the case thrown out without a jury trial in pretrial motions, the City finally agreed to settle the case.

City attorney Dennis Herrera’s spokesman Matt Dorsey contended that San Francisco had agreed to the $725,000 settlement upon acquiring information that Ms. O’Haire, unlike other Police Department employees who had been fired or demoted at the same time, hadn’t been allowed to stay at work for an additional period so that she could increase her retirement benefits. Dorsey further contended that Chief Suhr had no knowledge of the situation at the time and that he would have gladly accommodated Ms. O’Haire if he had known.

We have no idea what Mr. Dorsey is talking about and neither does Ms. O’Haire. She didn’t want to increase her retirement benefits. She wanted to keep her job. Only three people were terminated pursuant to these alleged cost cutting measures, Ms. O’Haire, Jerry Tidwell and Richard Nichelman. Ms. O’Haire’s former colleague Richard Nichelman, the SFPD’s support services director, said in an interview last week that he was walked out of the SFPD without any advanced warning and told that he would have to leave his office that afternoon. This is the same story Ms. O’Haire related in her sworn declaration. According to Richard Nichelman, no one ever offered him a chance to increase his benefits by temporarily remaining at work. Mr. Nichelman summed up his dispute of the City’s explanation for wrongfully terminating Ms. O’Haire:

“It had nothing to do with retirement. Nothing like that happened”

Courage Under Fire: Whistleblower Retaliation and Wrongful Termination

“It was an honor to represent one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met, who stood firm by her principles of honesty and integrity. I am more than pleased that she earned the settlement she deserves, which fully vindicates her and the important work she performed on behalf of the citizens of San Francisco.”–Attorney Randy Strauss

It takes a lot of courage to speak up against the people who are now in power, but Kelly O’Haire continued to fight for what she believed in and I am very inspired by her. Whistleblowers often do not fare well when they dare to speak out. Hopefully, Kelly O’Haire’s courage will change that and encourage other would be whistleblowers to do the right thing.” — Attorney Jayme Walker

Vindication is the word that best describes the final outcome and settlement of $725,000 in favor of Kelly O’Haire. It is vindication that a dedicated employee for the City of San Francisco like Kelly O’Haire, sworn to uphold the law to the highest degree and who was tasked with investigating police officers and ranking officials, can do her job without fear of retaliation. And it is vindication that the tax-paying citizens, who financially support the SFPD, can and should expect their public servants and elected officials to be held accountable for their actions.

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