A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has dismissed felony fraud and grand theft charges against a Baldwin Park Unified School District employee accused of misrepresenting her COVID-19 symptoms to collect more than $33,000 in workers’ compensation benefits.
Judge Craig Richman cited a lack of evidence in dismissing the case against Stephanie Medrano, who was charged with two felony charges of insurance fraud and one felony charge of grand theft. Deputy District Attorney Melinda Murray supported the judge’s decision at Medrano’s preliminary hearing on Friday, Oct. 8, court records show.
“This has just been a very hard 10 months for me. So when the judge said he was moving for the case to be dismissed, at that exact moment I let out this huge sigh,” the 33-year-old West Covina woman said in a telephone interview. “When I say a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders, that’s a huge understatement. The accusations they made toward me were serious allegations. It took a huge toll on me and my family.”
Medrano said she still suffers labored breathing as a side effect from COVID-19 and has been prescribed two bronchial inhalers by her doctor, one for daily use and one for emergency use.
Department of Insurance investigation
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charged Medrano on Jan. 12 following an investigation by the state Department of Insurance on behalf of the Baldwin Park Unified School District, where Medrano has worked for the past two years as the family services coordinator for the district’s Head Start and state preschool programs.
The school district referred the case to the state Department of Insurance on Aug. 16, 2020.
Medrano contracted COVID-19 while on the job, was instructed to self-quarantine by the district, and regularly checked in with her doctor during the month she was on leave. She went back to work on Aug. 4, 2020, a day after her doctor cleared her to return.
Prosecutors, however, alleged Medrano misrepresented the seriousness of her health condition and violated self-quarantine guidelines after a Department of Insurance investigator spotted her grocery shopping on a few occasions and visiting her family’s mobile home in Needles with her sister and brother-in-law without informing her workers’ compensation claims administrator. Medrano said her sister and brother-in-law had already been exposed to COVID-19 when she took the trip with them.
Richman found no relevance to the fact Medrano went grocery shopping and on a weekend getaway the weekend before she returned to work, said Medrano’s attorney, Warren Ellis. He solely blames the school district, which is self-insured, for the misguided prosecution of his client.
“They bear full responsibility for what was done to Ms. Medrano in a case that should never have been brought against her in the first place,” Ellis said.
Collected $2,138 in benefits
Murray, the prosecutor, declined to comment Tuesday, as did officials at the California Department of Insurance, which disseminated a press release following Medrano’s arraignment in February, claiming their investigation and Medrano’s subsequent arrest thwarted the potential loss of $33,516 to the school district.
Ellis said Medrano collected $2,138 in workers’ compensation benefits, yet the school district spent more than $31,000 on the investigation.
“I understand the school district has a budget to protect, but not like this — following somebody around whom they know for a fact has tested positive for COVID, and referring them to the Department of Insurance for the filing of felony charges,” Ellis said. “They are willing to pay more than $31,000 in investigation costs in order to not pay $2,000 in benefits. If that’s not to create a chilling effect on future COVID claims, I don’t know what is.”
Officials at the Baldwin Park Unified School District did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Heavy physical, emotional toll
Ellis said the criminal case has taken a heavy physical and emotional toll on Medrano and her family. Her mother, brother and sister all have tested positive for the virus, he said.
“You got a lady who’s never had any criminal trouble in her life, tests positive for COVID that she got from someone she worked with, and the next thing you know she’s charged with three felony counts,” Ellis said. “It’s been over a year, and she’s not only been anxious, she’s had to go to therapy because of the mental toll this has wrought on her.
“And then on top of all that, she ends up getting calls from friends and family from everybody else under the sun because the (Department of Insurance) put out a press release.”
Medrano, who has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 11, said she feels a little anxious about returning to work, and is worried about how she will be received.
“But I’m glad I’ll be able to walk in with my head held up high, knowing I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
During her ordeal, Medrano said her mother, who suffers from diabetes, almost died from COVID-19, and the stress of her daughter’s criminal case only made things worse.
Although she still suffers form labored breathing, Medrano said she feels like she can finally breathe again.
“I finally got a good night’s sleep on Friday after 10 months,” she said. “Every single day, honestly, not a day went by that this wasn’t weighing on my mind and me asking, “Why?”