Hospital suing to stop salary cap
El Camino Hospital has filed a lawsuit aimed at overturning Measure M — the voter-approved initiative that caps top executives salaries to no more than twice that of the governor of California.
While the hospital's biggest union played a key role in gathering the necessary signatures for the initiative, the healthcare organization's lawyers are not challenging the El Camino chapter of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers (SEIU-UHW). Instead, the complaint has identified two mid-level hospital employees as the defendants in the case, as they are the ones who signed the paperwork to get Measure M on the ballot.
The suit, which has six of the hospital's highest paid top officials as plaintiffs, names Kary Lynch and Laura Huston as defendants in the case. Lynch and Huston, co-sponsors of the initiative, are being sued as the official proponents of the measure, and "have a legally recognized interest in defending Measure M's validity."
All of this came as a surprise to Lynch, a psychiatric technician at the hospital. Although he has long been an outspoken supporter of his union, and while he worked hard to get Measure M in front of voters, he did not anticipate that he might be sued for his efforts.
In an interview with the Voice he said he feels he is being unfairly targeted and suspects that the hospital's legal team is trying to "intimidate" him and Huston.
"I feel that my freedom of speech rights are being infringed upon," he said.
It is not clear whether the hospital's lawyers could have taken another path toward overturning Measure M. Steve Mayer, a partner with Arnold & Porter LLP and one of the lawyers representing El Camino in the case, hesitated when asked if they could have approached the issue another way. "This is the way we chose to do it," he said. "It seemed to be the most logical and efficient way to do it."
Lynch said he does not have the financial means to mount a legal defense of Measure M, and said he has not yet heard back from the SEIU-UHW since asking for legal advice and help.
A representative from the labor organization told the Voice: "(The) SEIU-UHW is not a party to the lawsuit and so it has no standing in the case. The proponents will be represented by their own counsel."
Defending Measure M
Despite his situation, Lynch said he plans on moving forward to fight the case. Lynch was quoted in a local paper saying that Measure M was a union "bargaining chip" — intended only to force El Camino's hand in contract talks — and although he doesn't dispute that he said those things, he does insist he misspoke.
For Lynch, the initiative has never been about union politics. He said he has long believed that upper management is paid way too much at El Camino. In defending this point of view he cites documents that accompanied the complaint he was given on Dec. 26. The attached exhibits include a detailed description of El Camino Hospital CEO Tomi Ryba's compensation package.
In addition to being paid a base salary of $695,000 per year, with the possibility of a 30 percent bonus for good performance, the hospital also paid Ryba a $175,000 relocation fee and $147,380 to reimburse Ryba for the loss of bonuses at her prior job. On top of that, Ryba was eligible for a $400,000 interest-free loan to purchase a house near the hospital.
"I just can't see why anybody should be paid that amount of money," Lynch said, adding that many people close to him agree. He said he has been approached on multiple occasions by people who express how happy they were that the measure passed. "I can't let these people down."
According to the hospital's complaint, lawyers will be fighting the validity of Measure M on several fronts. First, ECH's legal team maintains that the initiative process can not be used to impose controls or restrictions on a health care district. Even if the initiative process could be used to control the public entity that is the El Camino Hospital District, it would not be able to interfere in the affairs of the El Camino Hospital Corporation, a separate, private entity, its lawyers argue. Finally, the hospital's complaint states that the "California Constitution prohibits the state and its political subdivisions from impairing the obligation of contracts."
The hospital is also suing Tamara Stafford, El Camino's interim chief human resources officer. The hospital's lawyers have included her in the suit so that they might prevent her from feeling legal pressure to reduce the paychecks of the six administrators that the measure would impact — Kenneth King, Michael King, Dr. Eric Pifer, Tomi Ryba, Gregory Walton and Michael Zdeblick.
The El Camino legal team has asked the court to "issue a preliminary and then permanent injunction enjoining (Stafford) from reducing the annual salary and compensation benefits" of the six listed executives and administrators.