Clinica Sierra Vista’s former longtime chief financial officer has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit alleging the health-care organization and its embattled chief executive fired her in April because he wanted someone younger in the position.
The suit filed on Consuelo Cantu’s behalf June 6 in Kern County Superior Court also alleges a pattern of demoting senior staff and replacing them with people who have far less professional experience.
The legal action represents the latest attack on Clinica CEO Brian Harris, who has been publicly accused of mismanagement and sexual or workplace harassment before and after he took over at Clinica in January of 2018.
Harris and his lawyers could not be reached for comment Friday. But court papers filed on the CEO’s behalf deny any such discrimination and generally contend Cantu has no legitimate claims against Clinica.
Bakersfield-based Clinica operates a chain of clinics offering medical, behavioral health and dental services to about 200,000 people in Fresno, Inyo and Kern counties. It was founded in 1971.
Cantu’s suit claims Harris made it clear early in his tenure at Clinica that he wanted someone who would stay on as CFO for at least 10 more years, and that Cantu, at age 66, needed to present him with a retirement plan. Cantu worked for Clinica for 44 years and had served as its CFO since 1989.
Discouraged by his “numerous” remarks about her age and his stated preference for millennial employees, Cantu says she nevertheless offered to transition to part-time work after three years, and then retire fully after two more years.
In September of last year, she says, Harris began questioning her handling of Medi-Cal claims, which she asserts had never arisen as a problem in numerous audits of Clinica’s finances and scrutiny of its billing practices. She says some negotiations with the state over repayments are to be expected but that Clinica has never come into serious conflict with the state over billing matters.
Harris later ordered a Washington, D.C., law firm he originally hired to lobby the state Legislature to instead investigate Clinica’s Medi-Cal bills and other financial matters going back 10 years, Cantu’s lawsuits states. It says the inquiry involved having lawyers read her emails dating back to at least 2011.
Lawyers with the firm ultimately called her into a meeting in which she was quizzed about apparent inconsistencies and unanswered email from years before.
Fired shortly after that meeting, Cantu says the only explanation given to her was that her dismissal resulted from the investigation.
Cantu’s lawsuit lists several alleged instances of older employees being removed from their positions and replaced with much younger workers. Among such actions, she states, was the appointment of a chief medical officer in her mid-30s who had less than one year of post-residency experience as a medical doctor.
The suit seeks economic, non-economic, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees.
A response to Cantu’s lawsuit, filed Aug. 12 on Harris’ and Clinica’s behalf by the Los Angeles law firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC, denies each of her allegations.
Ogletree’s filing says Cantu has not made the case that damages are in order and that she has failed to pursue remedies through more appropriate means. It also says she did not have a written employment agreement with Clinica, that she should have utilized the organization’s internal procedures for filing a grievance and that any actions taken against her were for legitimate business reasons, including her own poor job performance.
Two members of Clinica’s governing board could not be reached for comment. But former board member John M. Means, who turned in a letter of resignation in March that was highly critical of the organization’s leadership, said Friday he thought Cantu had done “an excellent job” as CFO.
“She was always thorough,” he said. “She seemed to have quite a high level of expertise, and she was responsive” to questions from board members, he added.
Means said he was unaware of any age-related discrimination during his roughly 13 months on the board. But he said he did notice a pattern of Harris firing people he deemed to be insufficiently loyal to him, and that under Harris’ leadership, more than two dozen senior staff members had been fired and required to sign non-disparagement agreements in exchange for hefty payments from Clinica.
Means’ resignation letter alleged Harris’ first year at Clinica had been “incredibly chaotic” and that the board had refused to investigate allegations of sexual or workplace harassment. He declined to be more specific, citing the confidentiality of closed-door meetings.
A letter presented by the board’s leadership in response to Means’ allegations accused him of mischaracterizing and misrepresenting the board’s actions.
In 2004, Harris was named as a defendant in an employment and sexual discrimination lawsuit when he was CEO of Klamath Open Door Clinic in Oregon, according to court documents. Filed by a woman who was second-in-charge at the clinic, the lawsuit alleges Harris made offensive remarks about women and hired and fired them based on their appearance.