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San Francisco Whistleblower $5 Million Verdict Upheld By Appeals Court

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The California Court of Appeal has upheld a unanimous jury verdict in a retaliation case involving San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

On Thursday, the court upheld the jury's finding that Herrera illegally retaliated against San Francisco Chief Trial Deputy Joanne Hoeper by firing her after she claims to have discovered a scheme happening at Herrera's office.

John Cote, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, issued a statement denying any wrongdoing by his office and said the jury did not rule on Hoeper's claims.

"This case is about an employment dispute," his statement read. "That's at the heart of the issues that were before the court. This case was never about corruption, and no court has found or suggested any City corruption in connection with Ms. Hoeper's claims."

The court upheld the jury's verdict, awarding Hoeper $5 million in damages and attorney's fees.

"We believe in the jury system, but no system is perfect," Cote said. "Sometimes juries get it wrong, and that's what happened here. Winning an appeal in an employment case like this is challenging. It's unfortunate the court did not recognize that the City Attorney had ample legitimate reasons for terminating Ms. Hoeper more than six years ago."

According to Hoeper's attorneys, Hoeper found evidence that the City Attorney's Claims Unit colluded with plumbing companies to pay hundreds of illegal claims involving alleged damage to sewers that weren't really damaged. Cote said that was not a part of the jury verdict.

Her attorneys claim Hoeper learned the scheme went as far back as 2007 and cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million. When Hoeper informed Herrera of her findings, a Claims Unit employee allegedly told her, "You'll be sorry," according to Hoeper's attorneys.

After Hoeper was fired, Herrera claimed it was because of his dissatisfaction in her handling of matters years prior to the sewer investigation.

"I lost the career I loved protecting the city I love," Hoeper said in a statement. "I hope this long-delayed victory encourages other public employees to do the right thing, be true to their oath and report wrongdoing. I hope it sends a strong signal to the city attorney and to other elected officials that, at least in California, firing whistleblowers is illegal and there will be consequences."

Cote said his office was reviewing what legal option it might pursue.

"We're reviewing the decision and evaluating our next steps," he said.

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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