Oregon’s workers comp insurance agency must reinstate the chief executive it improperly fired in 2014, a judge has ruled.
The ruling was a stunning victory for fired CEO John Plotkin and an embarrassing setback for SAIF Corp.
Marion County Judge Claudia Burton ruled the agency’s board violated the state’s open meetings law when it considered whether to oust John Plotkin in two private meetings.
She ordered to the agency to pay Plotkin more than 2.5 years of back pay, PERS benefits and legal fees – and to bring Plotkin back as the quasi-public agency’s top executive.
That puts SAIF in the awkward position of having two chief executives. It hired Kerry Barnett in May 2015 to take the helm. Barnett did not work at SAIF during Plotkin’s short tenure.
The ruling is a substantial setback for the agency, by far and away the state’s largest provider of workers’ comp insurance. The case, closely chronicled by The Oregonian/OregonLive, opened a rare and unflattering window into the organization. Legal documents and interviews with insiders revealed an operation rife with personal rivalries and power grabs. Within weeks of Plotkin’s start at SAIF, bureaucrats uncomfortable with his approach schemed to get him fired with largely discredited claims that he made off-color jokes and insensitive remarks.
Plotkin, now practicing law in Arizona, said he was grateful for the judge’s ruling. He said his termination by the agency had made it difficult to find work.
“The SAIF board has to make a decision,” he said. “It obviously would be a little bit awkward for Kerry and I to share that chair. If the board wants me to come back as CEO of SAIF, I remain available.”
Agency officials said they’re still digesting Burton’s decision. “We recognize this ruling puts us in an unusual position, but we have confidence in our board’s ability to make the best decision for SAIF,” spokesman Mike Watters said. “Regardless, we will continue to focus on workplace health and safety, and our core mission of taking care of injured workers and helping them get back to work. In the past few years, we’ve welcomed new board members and executive leadership, who have reaffirmed SAIF’s historic role as Oregon’s leader in workers’ compensation.”
Plotkin took the job in February 2014, replacing longtime Chief Executive Brenda Rocklin.
Ryan Fleming, then human resources executive for the agency, quickly began compiling an internal report detailing Plotkin’s alleged misbehavior. One of Plotkin’s reported gaffes was his warning to an agency employee while both were walking their dogs that his bulldog was likely to try and mount her dog. Plotkin said his dog liked to “hump” other dogs, particularly black ones, documents said.
Fleming and some members of the SAIF board interpreted the remark as offensive to women and vaguely racist.
Afterward, the woman involved in the bulldog episode and three other agency employees named as witnesses to Plotkin’s allegedly insensitive comments said the internal report had misquoted or misconstrued their accounts.
But by then, Plotkin was long gone. SAIF boardmembers informed Plotkin on May 3, 2014 they wanted him to resign. If he didn’t go willingly, he would be fired.
It was the first Plotkin heard that anyone had any issues with his performance. He refused to quit and complained that he was being railroaded.
At a dramatic meeting of the board on May 9, Plotkin pleaded his case. About a hundred SAIF employees attended, some spoke on his behalf. Nevertheless, the board fired him – after just three months on the job.
Plotkin lawyered up, hiring Dana Sullivan and Andrew Altschul, prominent Portland litigators specializing in employment cases. He sued claiming wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He also alleged that the SAIF board violated the state’s open meetings law when the board decided Plotkin’s fate on a private phone call and in executive session.
Plotkin named Fleming and another agency executive Chris Davie, as individual defendants. He also named his agency predecessor, Brenda Rocklin, claiming Fleming and Davie spent hours conferring with Rocklin how best to oust Plotkin.
Fleming and Davie were dismissed from the case and Rocklin argued she too should be dropped. Sullivan, Plotkin’s attorney, said the fight with Rocklin may be moot. It’s unclear whether Plotkin will continue to pursue the case given Judge Burton’s favorable ruling.
The case will cost SAIF more than $800,000 just to cover Plotkin’s back salary. He was making $325,000 year. Add benefits and legal fees, both its own and Plotkin’s, and SAIF’s total payout will be considerably higher.
SAIF officials said it’s too early to determine whether the insurance agency will appeal.
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