Settlement after stillbirth has a catch: She can’t work for California prisons again

Correctional officer Sarah Coogle thought she had ended the legal battle over her baby’s stillbirth when she reached a settlement agreement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation last month.

The $1.7 million agreement would settle her claims that the department failed to adequately accommodate her pregnancy in 2017, when she fell while working at a state prison in Tehachapi and experienced a stillbirth two months later.

“I was just relieved to be done with it all,” said Coogle, 34, who has since become pregnant again. “It’s been really stressful, and with my current pregnancy, I was just absolutely relieved to have an ending to it all.”

But her legal fight continues. After the corrections department agreed to settlement terms, including that she would resign, Coogle said the department brought up a new condition: She could never work there again.

She said she doesn’t plan to try to go back to work for corrections department, but she is concerned the clause could make her ineligible for a CalPERS disability retirement.

In an emailed statement, CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department “disputes the accuracy of the description of the ongoing settlement negotiations but cannot comment further while this litigation is pending.”

As Coogle awaits a November court date to address the new condition, Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering whether to sign a bill that would ban “no rehire” clauses like the one the corrections department wants to add to Coogle’s settlement agreement. The change would cover private sector workers and public employees.

Supporters of the bill, which cleared both chambers this year, say the measure would help protect victims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation from being treated worse than the people who harass, discriminate and retaliate.

Carmyn Fields, a former California Highway Patrol analyst, has been unable to find employment with another law enforcement agency since she reached a settlement agreement with CHP, she told a Senate committee in June.

Fields sued the department after supervisors failed to take action when she reported her boss had repeatedly sexually harassed her by running his fingers through her hair, sitting in her lap and on one occasion forcing her into an office and trying to kiss her.

The settlement agreement required her to resign, which Fields said she did not want to do, and to sign a “no rehire” clause. The clause prevents her from working for any branch or division of CHP.

Now when she applies for other state law enforcement jobs, she has to disclose on the state application that she “agreed not to seek or accept subsequent employment with the state or any state agency.”

Supporters of the bill say that disclosure has a chilling effect on being hired at other agencies. Fields said she has 12 years of job experience, exemplary reviews and a master’s degree in public administration, yet hasn’t been able to find another law enforcement job.

“Applicants who have signed ‘no rehire’ clauses as a condition of settlement are likely rejected from consideration, even when the ‘no rehire’ clause applied to a completely separate state agency,” Mariko Yoshihara, legislative counsel and policy director for the California Employment Lawyers Association, wrote in a letter supporting the bill.

The association co-sponsored the legislation, Assembly Bill 749.

Yoshihara said the association started taking a closer look at the clauses after noticing a pattern among victims who reported sexual harassment in California state government amid the Me Too movement.

“The harasser stays, gets to keep his job and move around in the workplace and potentially get a pay raise, while the person who has been a victim of harassment is the one who has to go,” she said. “It’s really problematic.”

Fields’ harasser was transferred to another department and now makes more money than he did when he pulled her into the office, Fields said.

“Requiring victims of sexual harassment to resign and never to be rehired is the ultimate form of institutional retaliation,” she said.

The law eliminating the clauses would take effect in January 2020 if Newsom signs it. Vermont and Oregon passed similar laws in the last two years.

Opponents, including the California Chamber of Commerce, have raised concerns that the new law could make it difficult for an employer to prevent the re-hire of an employee fired for a valid reason, or for a fired employee to claim retaliation if they are not rehired.

The Chamber also raised concerns that the law would undermine the certainty of closure that comes with settlement agreements containing no-rehire clauses.

Yoshihara said her association’s analysis showed no-rehire clauses have become common in settlement agreements in the last 10 years or so.

“There really does not seem to be any real consideration on the impact these clauses have on the individual,” she said. “They’re just imposed because they’re standard practice.”

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.