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Petaluma doctor fired for reporting patient abuse wins lawsuit

  • Dr. Van Peña won a 12-year-old lawsuit against the Sonoma Developmental Center. Peña now practices psychology in his Petaluma office. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

A Petaluma physician fired 12 years ago from the Sonoma Developmental Center after reporting rampant patient abuse has received $1.3 million from a federal court jury that said he was wrongfully terminated.

Dr. Van Peña, 69, said he felt partially vindicated by the nine-member jury's unanimous verdict, but dismayed because some consequences of the firing still stain his reputation.

“It's painful, mentally painful,” said Peña, who is self-employed in a private practice focused on behavioral health medicine.

A U.S. District Court jury in Oakland awarded Peña about $800,000 in economic damages and $500,000 for emotional distress following a nine-day trial that began Nov. 4.

His attorney, Lawrence King of Petaluma, said he will seek an additional $1.5 million to $2 million in legal fees. Petaluma attorney David King, who is not related to Lawrence King, and Barbara Giuffre of San Francisco were co-counsels.

Lawrence King, who has worked more than 1,000 hours on the case, said former attorney general and now Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris should have saved taxpayers money by settling the case.

Instead, the state “went out of their way to destroy this guy and now they're paying the price,” King said.

Peña, who filed a whistleblower lawsuit challenging his 2001 termination, said the prolonged legal battle “was a heck of an ordeal.”

The jury agreed that Peña's firing for allegedly denying care to an elderly patient at the Sonoma facility was retaliation for his efforts to expose patient abuse and medical negligence.

“They didn't like the exposure of what I would call some brutal injuries to patients,” Peña said in an interview.

The center, which houses about 500 patients on a sprawling campus in Eldridge, is the largest of four state-run centers for people with severe disabilities.

The troubled facility lost $1.37 million a month in federal funding for 112 patients in January, related in part to instances of patient abuse, and is subject to possible closure by a state task force.

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