Anti-smoking advocate claims Glendale City Council members pressured hospital to fire him

A longtime anti-smoking advocate has filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful termination lawsuit against Glendale Adventist Medical Center, as well as three City Council members who he alleges used their political influence to get him fired.

Steven Gallegos was terminated from his job as a tobacco outreach worker in October after he spoke out publicly against the City Council in fall 2012 for loosening smoking restrictions for restaurants with large outdoor seating areas.

According to the lawsuit — filed the day before Christmas in Los Angeles County Superior Court — Gallegos is seeking more than $5 million each from the hospital, three Glendale Adventist officials and council members Ara Najarian, Laura Friedman and Rafi Manoukian.

Gallegos, who has been advocating for anti-smoking legislation for more than a decade, said in an interview that he was shocked when he was fired after writing a letter to the editor to the Glendale News-Press criticizing council members who had voted to loosen the restriction.

Gallegos has long advocated for anti-smoking legislation, written many letters to the newspaper, and he claims he had never faced any discipline for these actions.

In September, Gallegos said in an interview, he received a 3% merit wage increase. In May, Kevin Roberts, Glendale Adventist’s chief executive, sent him a hand-written card congratulating him for his good work.

“My heart was broken,” Gallegos said of his termination. “The local and national reputation that I have was tossed out the window and I really feel that politics got in the way of public health.”

Glendale Adventist spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez said the hospital does not disclose personnel issues and had not received a copy of the lawsuit.

Gallegos’ attorney, David Romley, said he was waiting until after the holidays before notifying the hospital and council members.

Najarian, Friedman and Manoukian all denied the allegations listed in the lawsuit in interviews this week.

Najarian said he “obviously had no role in his firing” and looked forward to addressing “all the allegations in the appropriate forum.”

It all started when the council decided to review its 2008 fresh-air ordinance, which restricts smoking in outdoor dining areas and in common spaces of multi-unit housing.

There was a proposal to lift a rule limiting smoking to 25% of outdoor dining areas in late September, but after anti-smoking advocates spoke in support of maintaining the status quo, the council moved to keep things as is.

But the next week, at a lightly attended council meeting, Najarian introduced a new ordinance that would expand the size of smoking areas for restaurants with bigger patios. Friedman and Manoukian supported the change, and it became law.

A few days later, Gallegos sent his letter to the News-Press calling on voters to remember the council members who had voted for the change, especially with elections coming up in April. A few weeks later, he was fired.

Not long after that, the News-Press printed a letter from Bruce Nelson, director of community services at Glendale Adventist, that publicly chided Gallegos and another outreach worker for speaking out of turn.

The other worker did not get fired.

Romley said the lawsuit centers on Gallegos’ rights to free speech, as well as his rights to engage in political activity under California labor rules.

“We can’t in our country and in Glendale allow employers to terminate someone for expressing a political opinion outside the workplace,” Romley said.


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.


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