School custodian wrongfully terminated after injury. $35.5M. Santa Cruz County.

Summary

School District's workers' comp administrator is blamed for providing misleading information. Verdict includes $27 million in punitive damages against administrator.

The Case

  • Case Name: Ruvalcaba v. Santa Cruz City Schools, et al.
  • Court and Case Number: Santa Cruz Superior Court / 19CV00488
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Tuesday, May 24, 2022
  • Date Action was Filed: Wednesday, February 13, 2019
  • Type of Action: Civil Rights, Discrimination, ADA, Emotional Distress, Employment, Wrongful Termination
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Timothy Volkmann
  • Plaintiffs:
    Braulio Ruvalcaba, 41
  • Defendants:
    Santa Cruz City Schools (settled out)
    AP Keenan f/k/a Keenan & Associates
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $35,508,000
  • Settlement Amount: Santa Cruz City Schools - $1,000,000
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    Against defendant AP Keenan: $34,508,000.

  • Contributory/Comparative Negligence: None.
  • Economic Damages:

    $0

  • Non-Economic Damages:

    $6,908,000

  • Punitive Damages:

    $27,600,000 against AP Keenan.

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 10 days
  • Jury Deliberation Time: 2 days

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Collier Law Firm LLP by Dustin L. Collier, V. Joshua Socks and Elizabeth R. Malay, Corte Madera.

    Law Office of Brian Mathias by Brian C. Mathias, Aptos.

    Law Offices of Drew F. Teti by Drew F. Teti, Mill Valley.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP by Frances O'Meara, Los Angeles.

    Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP by Allan Isbell, Walnut Creek.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Experts:
    Ramon Jimenez, M.D.
  • Plaintiff’s Medical Expert(s):

    Ramon Jimenez, M.D. orthopedic surgery.

  • Defendant's Medical Expert(s):

    None.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Plaintiff worked as a custodian for defendant Santa Cruz City Schools (“the District”) from 2014 until his termination on January 9, 2018. Plaintiff experienced an on-the-job injury in 2016, but he returned to work full time with basic accommodations and continued to perform the essential functions of his position.

    Those accommodations would have permitted Plaintiff to remain employed with the District indefinitely. The District considered Plaintiff to be a good employee. However, Plaintiff was unexpectedly terminated in January 2018.

    The district and plaintiff reached a settlement of this matter and the lawsuit continued against the district's workers' compensation administrator, defendant Keenan & Associates (“Keenan”).

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    That plaintiff was discriminated against on the basis of his back injury; (2) that he was wrongfully terminated from a job he had been successfully performing in spite of that back injury for over nine months; (3) that the District failed to provide reasonable accommodations for his perceived limitations; and (4) that the District failed to engage in a timely and good faith interactive process with him to discuss accommodations for his perceived limitations.

    The District conceded that these allegations were all true, and that some compensation was owed to plaintiff. The settlement reached between the District and plaintiff included these admissions and factual stipulations by the District.

    As to the defendant at trial, Keenan & Associates, that the District improperly deemed plaintiff too injured to be able to continue working because of misleading information provided to the District by its workers' compensation administrator, defendant Keenan & Associates (“Keenan”). That this led the District to mistakenly believe that plaintiff could not be accommodated, even though he could have been if accurate information had been provided. That Keenan interfered with plaintiff’s reinstatement by instructing the District to disregard any medical information that did not come from Keenan itself, at the same time Keenan was withholding medical reports from the District that it had a legal duty to transmit, and which would have demonstrated Mr. Ruvalcaba’s ability to do the job even without any accommodations.

    Thus, that Keenan’s conduct made it liable for aiding, abetting, inciting, coercing, or compelling the District’s failure to accommodate, failure to engage in a timely and good faith interactive process, and the resulting wrongful termination. That Keenan was liable under a civil conspiracy theory of liability. Finally, that Keenan has deliberately destroyed evidence in a failed attempt to conceal and escape responsibility for its unlawful conduct.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    The District conceded plaintiff's allegations against it, admitted liability on all causes of action alleged against it, and settled pre-trial for $1,000,000.

    AP Keenan denied any wrongdoing. While it conceded that it failed to transmit accurate medical information to the District, it claimed these were innocent mistakes and oversights rather than intentional efforts to discriminate against plaintiff or get him fired. AP Keenan claimed that the District was solely responsible for the decision to terminate plaintiff and its refusal to rehire him, and that it was not appropriate for the District to blame Keenan for those decisions.

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Plaintiff claimed noneconomic damages for mental suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, anxiety, humiliation, and emotional distress.

Special Damages

  • Special Damages Claimed - Past Medical: None.
  • Special Damages Claimed - Future Medical: None.
  • Special Damages Claimed - Past Lost Earnings: None.
  • Special Damages Claimed - Future Lost Earnings: None.

Demands and Offers

  • Defendant Final Offer before Trial: $700,000 plus attorney’s fees and costs
  • Defendant Offer during Trial: $15,000,000 offered the morning of the punitive damages phase.

Additional Notes

AP Keenan is a division of Assured Partners, Inc., the eleventh largest insurance broker in the United States and a company with more than $1.6 billion in annual revenues according to its own website.

Disclaimer

This is not an official court document. While the publisher believes the information to be accurate, the publisher does not guarantee it and the reader is advised not to rely upon it without consulting the official court documents or the attorneys of record in this matter who are listed above.

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