The Perfect Enemy | County: “Dr. Nick” fired for poor judgement, not discrimination - The San Diego Union-Tribune
February 17, 2024

County: “Dr. Nick” fired for poor judgement, not discrimination – The San Diego Union-Tribune

County: “Dr. Nick” fired for poor judgement, not discrimination  The San Diego Union-Tribune

As San Diego County’s chief medical officer at the time, Dr. Nick Yphantides felt intense stress during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The long hours and lack of sleep caused him to break down mentally in October 2020, and in the following months he took two leaves of absence.

Before he could return from his second leave, county officials fired him. Months later, Yphantides, known to many as “Dr. Nick,” filed a federal lawsuit alleging his firing was both discriminatory and retaliatory based on his mental disability.

But the county recently asked a judge to dismiss most of the suit’s claims, arguing county officials had ample reason to terminate Yphantides’ employment. The county says that in the early stages of the COVID vaccine roll out, he asked another county employee to arrange shots for a wealthy couple who was not yet eligible; that he sent inappropriate private messages to a county nurse who was his subordinate; and that he sent sexually-charged messages to the San Marcos mayor.

This week, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel ruled that Yphantides’ discrimination lawsuit against the county can move forward. However, the judge dismissed five of the 11 claims, ruling that Yphantides and his attorneys did not provide enough evidence to support allegations that the county retaliated against him because of his mental disability.

His attorneys expressed optimism Friday that the case will go to trial and that their client will prevail, while a spokesperson for the county said he cannot comment on pending litigation.

“The county fell victim to the biases and stigmas of mental health” struggles, Yphantides attorney Aaron Olsen said. Attorney Greg Klawitter said the county’s treatment of their client was particularly troubling because it came at a time when the county was rolling out several mental health initiatives.

By firing Yphantides, the county “willfully chose not to be faithful to those programs,” Klawitter said.

Yphantides’ suit alleges that the county, knowing about his previous struggles with mental health, violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act when it fired him. The suit claims the county discriminated against him by firing him for his mental disability, that the county failed to provide reasonable accommodations for him and failed to engage in an interactive process to determine what accommodations he needed.

Curiel ruled those claims can move forward, but he dismissed four claims that the county retaliated against Yphantides for taking medical leave and interfered with his right to do so. The judge also dismissed a claim that the county retaliated against the doctor for requesting disability accommodations.

Attorneys defending the county argued Yphantides’ firing was justified because he showed poor judgment in his communications with the nurse and with Jones, and in seeking to get two friends, a hotelier and his wealth-manager wife, to the front of the vaccine line.

“Dr. Yphantides was not qualified for the job based on his undisputed poor judgment,” the county attorneys wrote in a 512-page motion to dismiss the case. “As a matter of law, employers are not required to excuse past misconduct caused by a disability, or to provide an employee a ‘second chance’ when the employee engaged in misconduct.”

Yphantides’ messages with the nurse, who texted him first to check on his well-being, included requests for photos of her and her family, and questions about personal information, such as her age and if she was married. He brought up her divorce several times over the course of a few days.

In private Facebook messages with San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones, he made a sexually explicit comment about her partner.

Jones declined to comment Friday.

The county attorneys also contended that Yphantides showed poor judgment in other instances not directly related to his firing, such as the time between his two leaves of absence when he repeatedly pressed San Diego Zoo officials to hold a news conference they did not want to have to discuss gorillas at the Safari Park becoming infected with COVID.

Yphantides does not dispute his communications with the nurse or the mayor, but his attorneys argued the context of the messages matters, because he was hypomanic at the time. The county attorneys argued he shouldn’t have been hypomanic when he was messaging the mayor, because his doctor had cleared him to return to work the next day.

Olsen said Friday that the jury “will do the right thing … (when it) sees the full context.” He said Yphantides’ two treating physicians and other medical experts will testify that while his client was still experiencing hypomanic episodes, he was well enough to return to work with reasonable accommodations.

The judge’s ruling did not offer opinions about the relative strengths of Yphantides’ arguments. But Curiel wrote that there were legitimate issues raised.

Curiel wrote that Yphantides has successfully shown his “supervisor and colleagues were directly informed of his mental breakdown due to the excessive work hours and high level of stress in his position.” It will be up to a jury, if the case reaches trial, to decide whether the county then had a duty to engage with Yphantides to negotiate reasonable accommodations.