Monday, April 03, 2006

Former county employee has lawsuit tossed

The Daily Journal, originally uploaded by rsdscrpsnews.

Former county employee has lawsuit tossed

By Michelle Durand
San Mateo County will not be held liable for wrongly accusing and charging a former employee who was unsuccessfully prosecuted for faking a severe wrist injury in 2001 to collect $99,000 in workers compensation benefits.

Judge Carol Mittlesteadt tossed the lawsuit by Sheryl and Robert Amaral against the county, ruling it has no liability in her battle against its workers’ compensation company. The claim against the company, Northern Claims Management, is still pending and the County Counsel’s Office is providing legal representation.

“There was a reasonable belief insurance fraud was being committed,” said Deputy County Counsel Raymond Swope. “There’s a reasonable belief where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

The Amarals can still appeal the decision and might seek a settlement straight from the Board of Supervisors instead of a return trip to court, said civil attorney Don Galine.

The couple filed the lawsuit last July after the District Attorney’s Office dropped fraud charges against the 58-year-old former disabled services advocate. The suit sought an unspecified amount for punitive and compensatory damages against San Mateo County and Northern Claims Management.

The couple claimed emotional and financial distress and also argues the county should have passed the criminal case to another jurisdiction because Amaral was one of its own employees.

Galine believes the county maliciously prosecuted Amaral to avoid paying her hefty workers’ compensation benefits for what he said is a legitimate injury.

Amaral spent 15 years working as a disability service advocate for the county until she severely injured her wrist in 2001, placing her in excruciating pain and keeping her at home on worker’s compensation payments. The “white-hot” pain traveled through her body and was finally identified as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD, Galine said.

The county, however, believed Amaral was faking her injury to collect benefits and charged her with fraud. To prove its case, the county and its claims administrator hired private investigators to follow Amaral and secretly videotape her lifting, driving and shopping. Galine said a doctor permitted the activity but prosecutors said her injury, if valid, would have not allowed the movement.

The surveillance and consequent prosecution caused Amaral economic and emotional damages, placing her name in the public spotlight and violating her civil rights, Galine contends.

In April, the District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence. Three months later, the couple filed their own suit.

Although the county has been removed, the suit is not finished until a judge decides whether the Amarals are liable for attorneys fees, Swope said.

Michelle Durand can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor:

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