Stanislaus County pathologist sues after employee took job

County, sheriff, autopsy doctor named in filing

September 17, 2010 

Stanislaus County authorities conspired with an autopsy doctor to hire him and illegally fire his employer, according to a $2 million lawsuit against the county and its Sheriff's Department.

The county contends that the employer was gouging taxpayers.

Also named as defendants are Sheriff Adam Christianson and the county's forensic pathologist, Sung-Ook Baik, the county's second-highest paid employee in 2008 and 2009.

Baik previously worked here in 2007 as a probationary employee of Forensic Consultants Medical Group, a Stockton firm owned by Robert Lawrence, who in 2005 signed a five-year contract with the county under former Sheriff Les Weidman. Lawrence planned to assign Baik as the county's medical examiner after county officials approved his work, but Baik, who lived in Buffalo, New York, at the time, told Lawrence he would not move to California, the lawsuit says.

That's because Christianson had taken Baik to lunch and secretly offered him the job directly, said Lawrence's attorney, Michael Dyer.

County supervisors agreed in August 2007 to create the position of forensic pathologist and Baik was hired and moved here soon after.

"But contracts are enforceable, even though someone thinks he's above the law," Dyer said in an interview.

Lawrence sued, claiming breach of contract and unfair business practices.

Baik was paid more than $300,000 in both 2008 and 2009 for autopsies and testifying in homicide cases. The county previously paid Lawrence about $400,000 per year, Christianson told The Bee when Baik was hired three years ago.

Christianson, who also holds the office of coroner, has had to slice millions of dollars from his budget, including laying off deputies, closing an Honor Farm wing and releasing inmates early.

Plaintiff renegotiated pay

The county contends that Lawrence either wanted out of his contract, or to be paid substantially more.

Lawrence served a termination notice in January 2007, then agreed to stay on at a per-case price estimated at $1.2 million per year, Christianson said in 2007. Lawrence told The Bee at the time that other counties such as San Joaquin, Merced and Mariposa had agreed to pay his firm the higher rate.

"A replacement pathologist should not, and cannot, be secured on an overnight basis," and Christianson was forced to meet Lawrence's demands, said Modesto attorney Lee Hedgepeth, representing the county, in a written response to Bee questions.

Baik's arrival signified "considerable savings to the county and its taxpayers," and "Dr. Baik has served with distinction since," Hedgepeth said.

A memo from Christianson regarding Lawrence's demands, dated February 2007, said the parties would continue to negotiate, with "other terms and agreements of the original contract (to) remain in effect until a new contract is agreed upon by the involved parties."

They never finished negotiating, court documents say.

A judge in August levied sanctions of $450 each on Baik and Christianson and $1,500 on the county for refusing to provide information needed by Lawrence to prepare his case, under court order.

Attorneys are expected Nov. 1 to schedule a trial date.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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