A psychiatrist who lost his job at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center won a $1.5 million judgment last week. Jan Weber—a 49-year-old Menlo Park resident who led the public hospital’s child and adolescent psychiatry division for five years—made numerous complaints about substandard patient care and unsafe work conditions before Santa Clara County fired him in 2014.
A jury sided with Weber after a three-week trial that featured testimonies from Valley Med’s lead psychiatrist, Michael Meade, and County Executive Jeff Smith, according to the plaintiff’s attorneys at Bohm Law Group.
The total verdict includes $552,800 in compensation for Weber’s past and future economic loss and $1 million for past and future emotional distress.
According to the lawsuit, Weber began sounding the alarm about unsafe and substandard patient care in fall of 2009. Years before the county began reforming its correctional system in response to the 2015 murder of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree by three deputies, Weber said he alerted them to problems with psychiatric care at the jails. Mentally ill inmates were being discharged with no plan for follow-up treatment, Weber said, leading to higher rates of relapse and recidivism.
Weber also warned county officials that being assigned to a juvenile detention facility only one day every other week was not enough, as federal law requires more frequent monitoring for youth on antidepressant medication. His supervising physician at the time, Tiffany Ho, allegedly retaliated by cutting his time in the facility by half and posting him to nine different clinical sites in the next year-and-a-half.
When Weber questioned Ho’s decision, she allegedly berated him and accused him of being “difficult,” “not a team player,” and a “trouble maker.” After Weber filed a whistleblower complaint, he was reassigned to report to Meade.
Under Meade, Weber continued to vocalize his concerns while asking for more work hours. Throughout 2012 and 2013, Meade, Weber and other hospital officials implored the county to give Weber more patient time with children outside of the hospital since the need for psychiatric services for adolescents and kids was very high with appointments backlogged for seven weeks or more.
“Repeated requests were made by the chair of psychiatry directly to then-Director of Mental Health Dr. Nancy Pena,” according to a verdict report shared by Weber’s lawyer. “Email communications revealed these requests were denied by Nancy Pena and Labor Relations, a department directly led by County Executive Jeff Smith. At trial, Dr. Meade testified Director Pena refused to let Dr. Meade moved Dr. Weber into the outpatient pediatric clinics unless Labor Relations approved. When Dr. Meade reached out to Labor Relations, they blew him off and never got back to him. According to Dr. Meade, this was the only time in his career with the county that he was blown off by labor relations.”
To make up for his lack of clinical time, Weber began taking on more administrative work and went on to participate in negotiations between the Union of American Physicians and the county. During those negotiations, per the lawsuit, he criticized the hospital for its “excessive productivity expectations” for doctors in the adult outpatient psychiatry clinics and inadequate security at the facilities.
”The county ignored these complaints and retaliated against plaintiff by reassigning him to the adult inpatient psychiatry unit, causing him to work in a discipline he had not practiced in since his residency eight years before,” the lawsuit claims.
Conflict between Weber and his superiors really began to escalate in 2014. In February that year, Weber alerted hospital leaders that the Mental Health Urgent Care was turning away pediatric and adolescent patients seeking care for emergency mental psychiatric issues. Dr. Weber thought this was a possible violation of federal laws prohibiting so-called patient dumping and refusing appropriate levels of mental health treatment. He was particularly concerned about a teenaged girl who was turned away despite reporting hearing voices telling her to kill herself.
According to hospital officials, Weber’s complaints caused a “huge uproar” in the county.
A few months later, in June of 2014, Weber completed a review of the county’s use of pepper spray on juvenile detainees. Based on his evaluation of medical literature, Dr. Weber concluded that “the use of pepper spray cannot be recommended from a child psychiatric perspective.” His report was sent to hospital directors, who cautioned him against sending it to a “broader audience.”
Later that same year, Weber was elected by his peers as vice chairman of the county Department of Psychiatry. But county Chief Medical Officer Jeffrey Arnold refused to appoint him. Instead, the lawsuit alleges that the county retaliated against Weber by refusing to even interview him for a promotion to behavioral health director and, ultimately, firing him for a purported lack of productivity and unprofessional conduct.
On Nov. 14, 2014, the county reportedly terminated Weber without warning.
During four days of testimony, Meade, a 30-year Valley Med veteran and Weber’s direct supervisor, spoke highly of the plaintiff and acknowledged that his productivity may have waned because the county refused to grant his requests for more clinical time.
Meade also told the court that Weber’s was the first termination of a psychiatrist in his department where he had no say in the decision. Were it up to him, the doctor added, he would have kept Weber on staff.
Smith, however, argued that Meade wasn’t actually Weber’s supervisor and that the county has the right to fire physicians without warning because they’re at-will employees. The county executive said he believes Weber’s termination was fair and justified.
Lawrance Bohm—Weber’s attorney, who’s known for winning the two largest single-plaintiff employment verdicts in U.S. history—said he hopes Weber’s victory will serve as a warning to Smith and other county leaders.
“Dr. Weber has received this immense vindication through his courageous pursuit of justice in the face of adversity and powerful government forces,” Bohm said.
He added: “This outcome encourages reporting unsafe care and clinical conditions by healthcare providers working with the impoverished underserved patient population within Valley Medical Center hospital and clinics.”
In a phone interview Monday, Weber said the county needs a top-down culture change and hopes the elected Board of Supervisors pays close attention to his case.
“I would like the county to become more proactive than it was during my time there,” Weber told San Jose Inside. “I had the sense that it was a very reactive culture, and rather than try to anticipate problems, the culture I experienced was to wait until there was a problem and then panic and point fingers.”
Weber said he sensed that promotions were based more on loyalty than competence, and that his vocal criticism put him at odds with supervisors from the get-go.
“I'm sure that’s a problem in many agencies, but it was very apparent in Santa Clara County,” he said. “When you do that, it has consequences. What ends of happening is you get a critical mass of managers trying to make themselves politically useful more than trying to prioritize things like patient care.”
County officials, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case.
Dr. Weber, who earned his medical degree in psychiatry at Hannover Medical School in Germany, interned at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and completed his residency and fellowships at Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine and Stanford University School of Medicine.
After completing his fellowship, Weber began working with children and youth in Tulare County at Porterville Youth Services and juvenile hall. He continued working with underserved youth at the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System. Upon his termination in 2014, he found work with Santa Cruz County and local nonprofits.