Brian Harris

Brian O. Harris is CEO of Clinica Sierra Vista.

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.

RETIREMENT PLAN

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.

LEGAL INVESTIGATION

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.

PROMOTING YOUTH

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.

NO CASE

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.

PUNISHING DISLOYALTY

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.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

(14) comments

BGarvin

Just read this article, but wanted to make a late point because it seems employees always have to take the brunt for others decisions. Do they have a union? Anyone, after a quick google search, it seems this person has had issues and allegations during his career. Apparently he was the CEO of a smaller clinic and allegedly called women “fat pigs” and a lawsuit followed. Clinica Sierra Vista is one of the largest nonprofits in the area, and I’d think the onus was on the Board of Directors and former CEO to find a respectable replacement when he retired. The onus is still on them to rectify this situation if these allegations are true and warrant it. You’d think they would have vetted this position really well in the first place. Who knows. However, on the other hand, this kind of stuff always happens with outsiders coming in. Directors of businesses and organizations sometimes hire people from the outside for the wrong reasons, without knowing what the day to day work life is or how things are running from the inside..

Oftentimes this can be destructive to a place if it is already well run. I’m sure there was a “right hand” person or someone second in command to the previous CEO that could have easily filled the position and done a great job maintaining the previous atmosphere. Why don’t more businesses/organizations give these positions to those who’ve put the time in and really deserve it? Always reward loyalty and those who put in their life/time first, imo.

I’ve seen this Harris guy on TV recently during the opening of the new clinic in Arvin, and of what I’ve seen and his quick mannerism, with his bow-tie and overall eccentric outfit, and just off first stereotypes, I could see he’d might be one of those “high change” or “high energy” individuals, but that’s not always what places need. Also, I hope this is not a trend in Bakersfield. Quite a few new leadership from the outside of their organizations hired recently according to articles I remember, the blood bank with a new boss and the kern court has a new outside ceo. Anyhow, I hope things work out for this long and storied clinic.

KenWitham

What if the board didn't want to keep the status quo created by the last CEO?

Bakoresident

People will believe anything printed in the news these days. Just because someone makes a claim and files a suit doesn’t make it true. There are a lot of good, ethical people working there and we are only hearing one side of the story. Don’t be so quick to believe everything you read. #fakenews

ISpy

the most interesting aspect is that he was accused of something similar back in 2004...pattern.

RaulMartinez

Replacing a CFO with somebody with no experience is dangerous and reckless.

echozero1337

Promoting Youth => Promoting less experience, less pay. This is how the county as a whole operates. They keep the money for the top of the organization. Bring in less experienced folks for the bottom of the hierarchy.

KenWitham

That's how a lot of large businesses work, too.

REMUDA

Also read the Mtn Ent. "questions". Niece is big time in health care. Time for 'O-Care' overhaul?

BFLtruth

What is going on over there? I know several people that work at Clinica Sierra Vista, it is VERY chaotic since Brian Harris arrived. It's time to investigate the CEO! Others continue to question the inept CEO: https://mountainenterprise.com/story/a-year-later-clinica-ceos-promises-raise-questions-2/

echozero1337

All around the county same song. All around the county same song, it's just the same old song. Whose county?

Peter Roth

Taco stands every corner

BFLtruth

[smile]

echozero1337

Taco's are the perfect treat. Are you trying to imply something? Mr Roth-child? Is there something unappetizing, less appealing for you, to see stands of the indigenous people all around you? Do you use your power and greed and envy to intimidate? Is that the sloth in you? Cannot do the hard things yourself? Mommy issues?

KenWitham

As long as the tacos are good and they're getting an A rating from the food inspectors, what's the problem?

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