Former chief judge sues CPUC, claims firing due to PG&E investigation retaliation, racial bias

by Steve Blum • ,

The California Public Utilities Commission is being sued by its former chief administrative law judge, Karen Clopton. She was fired from her job in 2017.

One of the few things the two sides agree on is that “the CPUC terminated [Clopton’s] employment” and that it was an “adverse action”, as one of the commission’s filings put it. The formal reason for the dismissal isn’t stated in court documents, by either side.

Clopton charges that the real reason she was fired was racial discrimination – she’s African American – and as retaliation for her cooperation “with state and federal investigations into the misconduct of CPUC commissioners and staff”, including allegations of “judge shopping”, during the CPUC’s own investigation of the fatal PG&E gas line explosion in San Bruno in 2010.

The complaint Clopton filed with the San Francisco superior court says “beginning in June 2016, the commission began an investigation and hired an outside investigator to look into Ms. Clopton’s ‘management style,’ including allegations that she engaged in ‘bullying, intimidating, and retaliatory’ behavior towards staff”, which, it says, “were without any factual basis and represent merely the efforts of a few disgruntled employees whose performance Ms. Clopton was required to criticise and correct”. The complaint goes on to say that later, in 2017, commissioners “gave Ms. Clopton a poor evaluation, rating her as ‘improvement needed’ in subjective areas of her performance, including ‘communications skills’ and ‘relations with others’”.

Clopton’s complaint charges that her poor review reflected “resentment” at her “efforts to encourage the commission and staff to maintain high ethical standards” during the criminal investigation into the PG&E/San Bruno “judge shopping” case, and at her “persistent efforts to identify and critique actions and statements reflecting racial bias by commission members and their staff”.

The reply from the commission was to simply “deny the allegations”, which is a proper legal response at this stage of a lawsuit. Detailed arguments and hard evidence come later.

Clopton would have been involved in assigning judges to cases, including the commission’s initial inquiry into the San Bruno explosion. There’s little doubt her cooperation would have been useful during the criminal investigation into how the CPUC handled it. Most of the facts surrounding the San Bruno case and the subsequent investigation have not been publicly disclosed, including Clopton’s role. If her lawsuit goes to trial, we might learn more about the whole story.

Key documents as of the date of this post are below, all collected documents are here.

Court documents
Order, regarding CPUC objections to amended complaint, 29 May 2018
Order, regarding case management conference, 5 September 2018
Order to show cause, regarding response to 29 May order, 10 October 2018

Documents filed by Clopton
Original complaint, 13 December 2017
Amended complaint, 8 March 2018
Response to CPUC objection to amended complaint, 15 May 2018
Case management statement, 28 June 2018
Case management statement, 4 September 2018

Documents filed by CPUC
CPUC objection (aka demurrer) to original complaint, 13 February 2018
CPUC objection to amended complaint, 13 April 2018
CPUC reply to Clopton response, 21 May 2018
CPUC answer to amended complaint, 28 June 2018
CPUC case management statement, 7 July 2018
CPUC case management statement, 4 September 2018
CPUC case management statement, 9 October 2018