The State Worker

New lawsuit targets California state tax building, officials

A dozen state workers are suing the Board of Equalization, alleging that agency leaders for years have known its 24-story headquarters, seen here in 2014, is a health hazard but continue to tell employees that the building is safe.
A dozen state workers are suing the Board of Equalization, alleging that agency leaders for years have known its 24-story headquarters, seen here in 2014, is a health hazard but continue to tell employees that the building is safe. Sacramento Bee file

A dozen state workers are suing the Board of Equalization, alleging that agency leaders for years have known its 24-story headquarters is a health hazard but continue to tell employees that the building is perfectly safe.

The lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court stems from mold and other defects at the board’s downtown Sacramento tower where roughly 2,200 employees work for the tax-collecting agency. Sacramento attorney Anthony Perez is seeking class-action status for the case and an unspecified sum of money for his clients.

Board of Equalization spokeswoman Venus Stromberg said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The state Department of General Services, which manages the tower at 450 N St., has long publicly said that the building is safe.

While they go (to the Legislature) and ask for funding, they tell their employees the building is safe.

Sacramento attorney Anthony Perez

Perez, however, said that state officials “are talking out of both sides of their mouths” by stating the facility is safe while at the same time issuing a media resource website in October that says the tower needs “$40 million for repairs and mediation” plus twice as much to relocate operations during the extensive repairs.

“While they go (to the Legislature) and ask for funding, they tell their employees the building is safe,” Perez said in a telephone interview.

The lawsuit claims that officials knew two years after the building’s 1993 opening that water was leaking into the structure, which fostered toxic mold growth. The mold, in turn, inflicted employees with all manner of illnesses, the lawsuit states, including “extreme fatigue, skin rashes, persistent flu-like symptoms, serious respiratory illnesses, sinusitis, frequent headaches, mood swings, anxiety, depression, memory lapses, inability to concentrate, chronic joint aches, digestive disorders, nausea, illnesses, diseases and disorders.”

Meanwhile, according to the court filing, “Management assured the employees that the headquarters building did not have any mold, toxic mold or other hazardous material that would cause health problems.”

As worries among staff mounted, according to the lawsuit, the board’s members “high-tailed it” to offices in nearby buildings; the legal department “moved out of the headquarters building to a safe nearby location”; and the former director allegedly “instructed management not to use the ‘M word,’ referring to mold.”

The lawsuit also cites BOE Chairman Jerome Horton’s comment during a July 2014 public meeting: “Even though my lawyers told me not to say this, I don’t think it’s safe,” in reference to the building.

The Board of Equalization headquarters has become California’s unofficial state money pit with a litany of defects besides mold that have included exterior glass panels that fall without warning, leaky windows, corroded toilet waste pipes and, several years ago, an infestation of bats.

Despite its myriad troubles, the tower is not the worst-off building in state government, according to a report released last year. And a new $1.5 billion building fund proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown does not set aside money to replace the board’s headquarters.

Perez says he has represented or is representing about 50 BOE employees in this and other building cases. In 2007, he filed tort claims against the board alleging employees were getting ill from exposure to toxic mold. The state settled with 31 workers. The terms were not disclosed.

Perez filed a separate lawsuit in 2014, but a judge denied it class-action status. Perez said his clients in that case are weighing their options.

Meanwhile, The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this week that CalPERS and a commercial property developer have discussed building a new mixed-use tower on a vacant lot at Capitol Mall and Interstate 5 that would include space for the agency.

CalPERS built the tower that the Board of Equalization now occupies.

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