Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Rodger Hartnett, once SDCOE attorney Dan Shinoff's right hand man, explores life as an opposing litigant against SDCOE

He Got Quite An Education
By Dorian Hargrove
San Diego Reader
Feb. 3, 2010

Every morning at seven o’clock, Rodger Hartnett starts his day. The 62-year-old law school graduate... opens up his book of word puzzles, and for two or three hours he works on them. The puzzles are a strategy to correct his visual processing impairment, an adult learning disability that he was diagnosed with back in January 2006.

...One day a month, Hartnett’s list of daily activities increases. On that day, Hartnett opens an envelope from his employer, pulls out a payroll check for $5237.28 and slides the check into a new envelope addressed to his lawyer, who mails the check back to the San Diego County Office of Education. The checks started rolling in to Hartnett’s mailbox in early December, eight months after Judge Steven Denton granted a writ in Hartnett’s wrongful termination suit and two months after the Office of Education’s appeal was denied.

It’s not that Hartnett doesn’t need the money. He cashed in his 401(k) in 2007. He draws partial Social Security benefits, and he adheres to a tight budget, leaving him just enough money in the bank to last him another year...

... the 1980s, when he worked for the County Counsel, a county department that handles the county’s civil lawsuits... During his first two years on the job, he received positive annual performance reviews from his superiors.

“I walked on water,” quips Hartnett. “Not to pat myself on the back — never mind, no one else is going to — in one of my performance reviews I was described as being a real asset to the operation.”

The positive reviews ended and the problems began in 2006, a year after his boss, executive director of the San Diego County Office of Education–Joint Powers Authority, Diane Crosier, asked him to reduce legal expenditures to outside law firms by 10 percent. Hartnett looked at the law firms the office used.

[Image: Dan Shinoff of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz]

He discovered that in one recent year, the Office of Education had paid nearly $2.9 million to outside legal firms. One firm — Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff, and Holtz — received more than $1.49 million, ten times more than the next-highest-paid firm. Only three firms — Daniel Shinoff’s firm; plus Winet, Patrick, and Weaver, a law firm located in Vista; and Best, Best, and Krieger — received all of the school districts’ lawsuits.

Much of that money, says Hartnett, was for work that could have been done internally: “Shinoff’s law firm was assigned all the labor-intensive work, which was my work.”

...Hartnett recalled a lunch he and colleagues had had with Daniel Shinoff, a lunch that Shinoff had paid for. During lunch, Shinoff and Crosier had talked about a legal case involving Crosier’s son in San Francisco. Shinoff was representing him. Later, Hartnett discovered that Crosier had worked for Shinoff’s firm in the ’80s, after she passed the bar exam.

A few weeks later, Hartnett again pitched his idea to Crosier and again she rejected it...Crosier wrote that he should forget his idea.

He went to William “Woody” Merrill, general counsel for the Office of Education and a partner of the law firm Best, Best, and Krieger, to discuss his findings. Merrill advised Hartnett to discuss his concerns with Crosier’s superior, Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent of business services.

... According to Hartnett’s attorney, Barry Vrevich, only after Merrill’s wife took control of the human resources department did Best, Best, and Krieger, the second-highest-paid firm on the county education office’s panel, start receiving cases.

...[Hartnett] had never passed the bar exam, failing the multiple-choice part four times. His girlfriend asked him if he had ever been tested for a learning disability. Hartnett had not. She recommended the Lindamood-Bell Learning Center in Del Mar, and a few weeks later, after a series of tests, specialists confirmed that Hartnett suffered from visual processing impairment.

He was, however, allowed to use his vacation and sick leave for his five-week training program to help him cope with the disability...During his training, no one at the Office of Education commented on his disability, though shortly after beginning the training, Crosier stripped away Hartnett’s supervisory duties.

..."They are not supposed to discriminate against you because of a disability.”

On October 5, 2007, Hartnett was terminated. Seventeen months after that, on March 27, 2009, San Diego superior court judge Steven Denton granted the writ that ordered the San Diego County Office of Education to reinstate Hartnett and award him back pay for the time he was out of work...

Hartnett says the county must have hired someone else to do his job, meaning taxpayers are paying not only Hartnett’s salary but also the salary of whoever is replacing him. In addition, Hartnett claims the county is not following the court order to send him back pay for the past two years...

According to Jim Esterbrooks, public information officer for the Office of Education, the office will not comment on Hartnett’s case. The office also refused to provide its legal costs associated with Hartnett’s termination suit.

The San Diego County Office of Education “continues to request Shinoff and Winet,” wrote Esterbrooks in an email. “Both are extremely experienced and successful in their work on behalf of school districts. That’s why school districts request them. SDCOE continues to use Best, Best & Krieger, where Merrill works.”...

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