Judge: UTMB layoff case will be heard Galveston court

By John Suayan, Galveston Bureau | Mar 5, 2009

GALVESTON – The University of Texas Board of Regents will have to defend their decision to layoff thousands of hospital employees after Hurricane Ike in a Galveston court, a judge ruled March 4.

The regents face a lawsuit over mass layoffs at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in November. Plaintiffs claim the regents made the decision to layoff the employees of the hurricane damaged hospital without proper disclosure and in violation of open meeting laws.

Judge Wayne Mallia of the 405th District Court denied the change of venue request made by attorneys representing the regents, stating the suit sought to reverse the defendants' allegedly illegal decision and therefore Galveston was the appropriate venue.

The defense hoped to have litigation moved to El Paso, where the regents met to discuss the possibility of mass layoffs at the 120-year-old medical institution. Austin was reportedly considered another site for the deliberations.

The regents' counsel argued either El Paso or the capital would serve as neutral ground while lead plaintiffs' attorney Joe Jaworski contended that his clients would be deprived of trying the case in the locale of the layoffs.

Jaworski is representing the Texas Faculty Association, who authored the suit nearly a month after the termination of more than 3,000 UTMB employees.

The TFA alleges the regents of violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when they met behind closed doors to talk about the dismissals.

Court papers say the regents conducted closed meetings by way of conference calls on three different occasions prior to the El Paso meeting.

The defendants say their decision behind the job cuts is in response to UTMB's reported financial losses of $40 million a month since Ike came ashore on Galveston Island the morning of Sept. 13 with 110-mph winds and a 15-ft storm surge.

The Category 2 storm, which damaged numerous residences and businesses and rendering thousands of residents homeless, flooded approximately 750,000 square feet of the medical branch and left it with a $710 million price tag.

With many employees - many of whom Ike displaced - idle and the main hospital shuttered, UTMB was forced to burn through its cash reserves to stay afloat.

The terminations were supposed to occur a month after the storm, but city, county, and state leaders intervened.

The lawsuit also contests the decision to ensure UTMB for only $100 million, which apparently could not cover the costs of Ike's destruction to the school. It also seeks to make public tape recordings and minutes of several meetings.

The case is set for trial on Oct. 19.

Case No. 08CV1195

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