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A Petaluma physician fired 12 years ago from the Sonoma Developmental Center after reporting rampant patient abuse has received $1.3 million from a federal court jury that said he was wrongfully terminated.

Dr. Van Pe?, 69, said he felt partially vindicated by the nine-member jury's unanimous verdict, but dismayed because some consequences of the firing still stain his reputation.

"It's painful, mentally painful," said Pe?, who is self-employed in a private practice focused on behavioral health medicine.

A U.S. District Court jury in Oakland awarded Pe? about $800,000 in economic damages and $500,000 for emotional distress following a nine-day trial that began Nov. 4.

His attorney, Lawrence King of Petaluma, said he will seek an additional $1.5 million to $2 million in legal fees. Petaluma attorney David King, who is not related to Lawrence King, and Barbara Giuffre of San Francisco were co-counsels.

Lawrence King, who has worked more than 1,000 hours on the case, said former attorney general and now Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris should have saved taxpayers money by settling the case.

Instead, the state "went out of their way to destroy this guy and now they're paying the price," King said.

Pe?, who filed a whistleblower lawsuit challenging his 2001 termination, said the prolonged legal battle "was a heck of an ordeal."

The jury agreed that Pe?'s firing for allegedly denying care to an elderly patient at the Sonoma facility was retaliation for his efforts to expose patient abuse and medical negligence.

"They didn't like the exposure of what I would call some brutal injuries to patients," Pe? said in an interview.

The center, which houses about 500 patients on a sprawling campus in Eldridge, is the largest of four state-run centers for people with severe disabilities.

The troubled facility lost $1.37 million a month in federal funding for 112 patients in January, related in part to instances of patient abuse, and is subject to possible closure by a state task force.

Pe?, who worked at the center for 10 years, said most of its staffers are "honest, hard-working people doing a tough job," but some workers are "vicious" and management is "corrupt."

In 2011, an anonymous tipster said a caregiver at the center used a stun gun on 11 severely disabled patients. Doctors confirmed the injuries and officers found a Taser in the caregiver's car, but he wasn't prosecuted in connection with the assaults.

He was fired and found guilty of a separate illegal handgun possession charge.

King said that Pe? and Ed Contreras, the center's former police chief, began reporting "gross medical negligence" to center officials in late 1999.

One case involved a patient who lost vision in one eye because of untreated glaucoma, King said.

When they got no meaningful response, the men contacted a local newspaper and state lawmakers, King said.

The ultimate result, he said, was passage of a state law requiring all state developmental centers to report suspicious injuries and deaths to local law enforcement.

In 2001, Pe? was placed on administrative leave and subsequently fired for allegedly refusing to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a 92-year-old patient dying of kidney failure.

The woman's sister and the center's physicians had agreed that CPR should not be attempted on the woman because it would do her no good and cause her unnecessary pain, Pe? said in court papers.

The reason for Pe?'s firing was "they wanted to get him out of there because they knew he was blowing the whistle," King said.

In 2002, Contreras received $405,000 from a federal court jury in an employment discrimination case against Sonoma Developmental Center and the state Department of Developmental Services and eventually settled all his claims for $980,000.

Pe? initially lost his federal district court case in 2009 on a hung jury that voted 6-2 against him.

In that trial, Judge Claudia Wilken excluded evidence of the efforts by Pe? and Contreras in reporting allegations of patient abuse and medical malpractice to state health officials, lawmakers and the press.

The outcome was reversed by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which held in 2011 that Wilken had inappropriately excluded some of Pe?'s evidence.

Monday's jury verdict came after the case returned to the district court.

Pe?'s termination in 2001 was reported to the Medical Board of California, the state's physician licensing agency, which cleared his record a year later.

But the National Practitioner Data Bank, which maintains employment-related information on health care providers, still lists his termination for denying necessary care to patient.

"That's a blight," Pe? said. "They might as well call me a murderer and a rapist."

When a local health clinic told him it no longer needed his services, Pe? said he elected not to pursue the matter.

King said he intends to ask the district court to order the Department of Developmental Services to notify the databank that it is withdrawing the notice of Pe?'s termination.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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