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Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Lawyer sues over her furlough losses

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 11:38 am

State attorney Kelly Vent admits her lawsuit is a long shot, a kitchen-sink argument that says furloughing her for 82 days over the last four years violated everything from the U.S. Constitution to common sense.

Yes, she knows that the California Supreme Court decided the issue in 2010. Yes, she understands that her union agreed to 12 of those 82 furlough days. The the simple thing would be to just move on. Let it go.

But she can't.

"Furloughs were wrong," Vent said during a recent lunchtime interview in downtown Sacramento. "It hurt my feelings."

So last month she filed a complaint for back pay in Sacramento Superior Court, naming Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature, Controller John Chiang and Jacob Appelsmith, director of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department where she has worked as an attorney since late 2008.

"The taking of my salary unjustly enriched the ABC," the complaint says, noting Vent's pay comes from business license fees that couldn't be used to plug the state's general fund budget hole.

Furloughs weren't part of the plan when Vent took her attorney job and built a tight budget that included $100,000 in McGeorge law school student loans.

"Furloughs financially destroyed me," Vent said. "The state made its credit problems my credit problems."

She became a fixture in the comments section on this column's companion State Worker blog, where she frequently held forth on furloughs and labor law.

A community of like-minded state workers coalesced, and "people started reaching out to me through the blogs," Vent said, tearing up as she thought about the stories she heard, many worse than her own.

Meanwhile, she and many other state attorneys were offering up legal strategies to their union lawyers about how to fight furloughs in court.

"From time to time, she put together some arguments," recalled Patrick Whalen, the union lawyer who argued against furloughs in front of the California Supreme Court.

Whalen couldn't recall whether any of Vent's ideas inspired arguments he made in countless court briefs, but he did remember her "sane" tone. It stood out among what were sometimes little more than bitter complaints.

Now, several hundred dollars in court fees and countless hours of writing and research later, she has her own lawsuit.

"I give Kelly credit," Whalen said. "She's putting her money where her mouth is."

Some of the arguments: Furloughs violated the state's civil service merit principle, trample state- and federal-contract law and her department in particular withheld her pay without legal authority.

Still, Vent says, it's nothing personal.

"I love working for the state. I like working at ABC," she said, "except for having to sue them."

Call The Bee's Jon Ortiz, (916) 321-1043. Follow him on Twitter @thestateworker and read his blog, The State Worker.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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Note: The State Worker blog switched blog platforms in October 2013. All posts after the switch are found here. Older posts are available using the list below.


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