Federal court rejects Stone’s lawsuit
Jan. 29, 2013 — Former Lassen County Administrative Officer (CAO) Tom Stone will have to come back to Lassen County if he wants his day in court.
A federal court judge ruled last week Lassen County’s Superior Court is the proper jurisdiction for the wrongful termination lawsuit Stone filed in federal court. The former CAO seeks at least $1 million in damages, alleging violations of both federal and state law.
On Tuesday, Jan. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England, dismissed Stone’s case filed in federal court because it was filed in an “improper venue” and ordered his clerk to “close the case.”
The judge did not consider the facts or the merits of the case and only considered if the federal court had jurisdiction in making his ruling.
Lassen County Counsel Rhetta Vander Ploeg said Stone has 30 days to file an appeal with the federal court or 30 days to refile the lawsuit in Lassen Superior Court.
Treva Hearne, the Reno-based attorney representing Stone, did not return the newspaper’s call seeking comment for this story.
Morrison wrote, “The court finds the forum selection clause (in the contract between Stone and the county) is valid, and that venue is improper in this case. Plaintiff (Stone) has not borne his heavy burden of proving that he would be deprived of his day in court if he is required to litigate his case in Superior Court for the County of Lassen.”
According to Morrison’s ruling, “If the court determines that venue is improper, it may dismiss the case, or, if the interests of justice require, the court may transfer the case to any district in which it properly could have been brought. The decision to transfer rests in the court’s discretion.”
In his decision, Morrison upheld the validity of the “forum selection clause” included in Stone’s contract with the county that requires any disputes arising out of that contract be resolved “in Lassen County.”
Morrison wrote the federal court could overturn the forum selection clause if Stone showed “the designated forum is so ‘gravely difficult and inconvenient that (the party) will for all practical purposes be deprived his day in court.’ Absent such a showing, ‘there is no basis for concluding that it would be unfair, unjust or unreasonable’ to enforce the forum selection clause.”
Stone’s attorneys had argued since the federal court’s jurisdiction includes Lassen County it is the proper venue, but Morrison rejected that argument.
“In this case, the phrase ‘in Lassen County’ limits the venue to courts sitting within the geographic limitations of Lassen County. No federal court sits in Lassen County, California. Only the Superior Court of the County of Lassen sits within the geographic limitations of Lassen County. Thus, although Lassen County is part of the Eastern District’s judicial district, the forum selection clause contained in the plaintiff’s employment contract provides that venue lies in state court. Furthermore, there is no argument, or any indication to the court, that enforcement is ‘unreasonable’ under the circumstances.”
Due to the validity of the forum selection clause, the court also rejected Stone’s claim federal court was the proper venue because his pleading represents federal claims.
According to Stone’s contract, “This agreement shall be construed in accordance with the laws of the state of California, and the parties agree that venue for any dispute arising from or related to this agreement shall be in Lassen County, California.”
Stone filed the wrongful termination suit alleging violations of state and federal law against Lassen County and supervisors Jim Chapman, Jack Hanson and Bob Pyle — the three supervisors who voted to terminate him.
According to Stone’s contact, the CAO, whom the county considers an at-will employee, could be terminated at any time whenever “a majority of the board votes to terminate employee during a duly authorized public meeting.”
As severance, Stone was to be paid six months salary, including all benefits. Stone’s base salary, without benefits, was about $120,000 per year.
Stone was hired Dec. 6, 2010 after signing a two-year contract. He was fired less than seven months later July 12, 2011.
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