The widow of a California administrative law judge is suing the state, alleging that an order compelling him to drive long distances by himself caused so much stress that the 74-year-old died from a heart attack.
Bonnie Campbell of Lake Havasu, Ariz., has already won one round in her effort to the hold the state accountable for Larry Campbell’s September 2015 death. In July, she received $150,000 from the California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, a state department that awards benefits for workplace-related injuries.
The lawsuit is a separate claim alleging that one of the boards charged with upholding state workplace protections discriminated against one of its senior employees and caused fatal stress.
“He dropped dead in the middle of the night because of the problems he was going through,” said Bonnie Campbell’s attorney, J. Wynne Herron.
Larry Campbell’s former employer, the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, is fighting the case in Santa Clara Superior Court. The department has tried to maintain a respectful tone in discussing the case while arguing in court that Bonnie Campbell should not receive additional benefits.
The board’s arguments in court are largely procedural. A tentative ruling from Santa Clara Superior Court Judge William Elfving last month dismissed part of the case because Campbell had not filed a wrongful death claim properly. The second part of the case alleging that the department discriminated against Campbell is moving forward.
“On behalf of the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, we extend our deepest sympathies to Judge Campbell’s family. Larry was a valued member of our staff and is missed by his coworkers. Our thoughts are with his family as they strive to put this behind them and find peace,” the board’s assistant director, Lori Kurosaka, wrote in a statement to The Sacramento Bee.
The board offers workers and employers an avenue to contest decisions from the Employment Development Department. Most decisions are handled by administrative law judges like Campbell, although some can be elevated to a board of political appointees.
Bonnie Campbell’s lawsuit centers on a sequence of events in the summer of 2015, when Larry Campbell’s supervising judge at the board’s San Jose office declined to continue exempting Campbell from a policy that required administrative judges like him to occasionally travel out of town for hearings.
The change meant that Campbell would have to drive to Modesto twice a month. If he refused, his employer would dock time from a leave bank Campbell had accumulated. Eventually, he could lose his job, according to his lawsuit.
Campbell had worked at the board’s San Jose office for 13 years. He took the bus to work from his home in Santa Cruz County because he had a heart condition and a doctor had advised him to avoid driving, according to the lawsuit.
His heart condition was common knowledge in his office, according to staff emails that an administrative law judge shared with The Bee. The judge asked that The Bee not name the authors of the emails because employees in the office worry they’ll experience retaliation from the board.
Campbell “knew he was being discriminated against and harassed because of his disability and his age,” read one message sent to the members of the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. “He felt strongly that (the order to drive to Modesto) was a pretext to force him to quit his job.”
Campbell was first disciplined for not driving to Modesto on Sept. 10, 2015. His lawsuit says he wrote an email to a supervising judge that day, alleging the department was discriminating against him.
A day later, Campbell died.
He was scheduled to drive to Modesto again the following week.
Campbell’s supervisors “should have known that their unlawful conduct was likely to result in severe emotional distress and shock to his nervous condition, which would have an adverse effect on Larry Campbell’s heart condition leading to serious injury to him, including the possibility of a heart attack and death,” the lawsuit reads.
Larry and Bonnie Campbell had a long-distance marriage, Herron said. They spent holidays together and remained close, although they lived in separate states.
Herron said he talked with Campbell before the judge’s death and reported that he loved his job, and continued working past retirement age because he enjoyed it.
“Obviously, the guy wanted his job,” Herron said, pointing to Campbell’s two-hour bus commute as proof of his commitment to his work.