A judge earlier this month dismissed Humboldt County counsel Jeff Blanck’s lawsuit against multiple county employees, a significant milestone in a case stemming from the chief attorney’s unexplained placement on paid leave.
Blanck had sued former Human Resources director Lisa DeMatteo and county administrative officer Amy Nilsen, saying they targeted him after he raised alarm about a host of unchecked payments by DeMatteo’s department to an outside legal firm.
Shortly after Blanck’s notice about the payments, the county Board of Supervisors voted to place him on paid leave for two complaints against him that have not been made public, and which Blanck says he hasn’t received details about.
Blanck then sued the county, alleging Brown Act violations and religious discrimination over his Jewish heritage. He also filed for damages against DeMatteo and Nilsen, saying they attempted to oust him for “economic advantage” after he brought the payments to light.
But Judge Joyce Hinrichs this month sustained DeMatteo and Nilsen’s motion to dismiss the case, providing no reasoning in the order.
Blanck told the Times-Standard that the judge found DeMatteo and Nilsen had acted under the scope of their employment, regardless of whether his claims against them are factual.
DeMatteo, who resigned from her position earlier this year with hefty separation pay, declined to comment on the judge’s order.
In an interview on Thursday, Blanck said Hinrichs acted incorrectly by making a factual judgment (instead of an evaluation of the case’s relevance) to dismiss the claims. He said he intends to appeal, which would bring the case to a district court judge.
“We correctly pleaded our causes of action,” Blanck said Thursday. “We’re hoping the court of appeal will rule in our favor in accordance with the law.”
Blanck has now been on paid leave for eight months. He said a third-party investigator appointed by the county interviewed him recently, but his status as county counsel remains unchanged.
In a closed-session vote in March, the Board of Supervisors voted to place Blanck on leave pending an investigation into two complaints against him. Blanck said he was not allowed into the supervisors’ chamber to hear the vote, which he called a violation of open-meeting laws.
The supervisors reported no action out of the closed session, though board chair Rex Bohn later confirmed to the Times-Standard that Blanck had been placed on leave — a vote he called a “personnel” move that can be omitted from public transparency obligations.
(The Brown Act, a set of open-meeting laws in California, stipulate that any action in closed session that affects “the employment status of a public employee” must be reported to the public.)
In September, a judge dismissed Blanck’s Brown Act claim against the county — another order Blanck plans to appeal.
He has sued the county for three other claims: that the county violated his First Amendment rights, targeted him for whistleblowing and discriminated against his Jewish heritage.
During the time Blanck has been on paid leave, the county has put to paper the changes that the county counsel says he was targeted for suggesting. Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors ratified a host of past payments to outside legal firm Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore.
The supervisors also directed outside firms to send payments for review by the county counsel, indirectly offering closure to Blanck’s initial conflict with DeMatteo, which stemmed from the then-Human Resources director insisting that her office was responsible for overseeing Liebert, Cassidy and Whitmore’s long list of invoices.
In a handful of closed sessions over the past eight months, the supervisors have discussed the Blanck matter with legal counsel but rarely reported out any action.
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.