A new California whistleblower law set to take effect after Jan. 1, 2021, could greatly increase the City of Vallejo’s price tag if former city employees prevail in an upcoming lawsuit.
The suit will be filed on behalf of three people who claim, among other things, that they were wrongfully terminated after they say they raised serious issues about their boss, City Manager Greg Nyhoff.
The law, Assembly Bill (“AB”) 1947, was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September and authorizes the courts to award attorney fees to successful parties that prevail in “whistleblower” cases against employers. A whistleblower case can be brought for employees who say that they have spoken up against fraud, abuse, waste, or abuse of taxpayer funds and were retaliated against or fired for doing so.
Joanna Altman, assistant to the city manager for communications and special projects, Slater Matzke, special advisor to the city manager, and Will Morat, assistant to the city manager for economic development, all worked closely with Nyhoff and were let go on April 23 of this year after they say that they reported serious issues with him, including accusations of corruption, graft, and sexual and racial harassment, among other things.
The trio are suing for $3.8 million. With attorney fees added on– if the plaintiffs prevail with all that they have asked for– a contingency rate of between 20 and 40 percent could increase the cost to the city by roughly $750,000 to $1.52 million.
All three workers say they were let go after they were interviewed by an independent inspector who was reviewing Nyhoff’s performance, at the request of the Vallejo City Council. They claim they were compelled to be as forthright as possible about their boss and that they were told they could be terminated if they did not do so.
In an interview with ABC Channel 7 news, Morat expressed concerns he had with speaking candidly with the inspectors. “Look,” he claims he told them, “my concern is that at one point Nyhoff is going to get ahold of this report, and when he does, he‘s going to use it as a hitlist and go after anyone who is critical of him.”
All three say they were told that they would remain anonymous in the report that was given to council, which it appears they were, but a lawyer who also oversaw the independent investigation, Christopher Boucher, told Channel 7 that he was concerned about other issues with the staffers unrelated to their interview responses, and that he brought those concerns to Nyhoff. The three were dismissed shortly after.
In the pre-litigation claim filed by their attorneys — Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavelli & Brewer — the ex-employees outline accusations of dealings with Mare Island developers, the harassment of a Black female employee that they say they all tried to advocate for, and retaliation for speaking up.
In a statement given to the Times Herald, Nyhoff called the allegations “false” and points out that though he was “not privy to the content of the investigation, I was notified by Council that I was exonerated of all claims.”
“It appears that the intention is to distract and deflect from the good that the City is doing to reform our police department and build a thriving community with a strong economy,” he said.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs anticipate filing suit in January.