Hung jury in former deputy's suit against Stanislaus County

rahumada@modbee.comAugust 15, 2012 


Stanislaus County Sheriff Deputy Dennis Wallace talks to the kids at Hart Ransom School Friday 04/30/04 during the graduation program. Marty Bicek/The Modesto Bee

MARTY BICEK — Modesto Bee

— After four days of deliberations, a civil jury could not reach a verdict Wednesday in the case of a former Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy who claims he was wrongfully forced out of his job after suffering a series of injuries on duty.

Dennis Wallace sued the county, alleging Sheriff Adam Christianson discriminated against him. Wallace says he can still work as a deputy, but the sheriff and the county have not given him a chance to prove it.

County officials say Wallace no longer can do the job without putting himself, his co-workers and the public at risk. The county's attorney argued in the trial that the case was about Wallace's inability to work as a deputy.

Because the proceeding ended in a hung jury, Wallace will get a new trial. "He's not giving up," said his attorney, Stephen Murphy.

Some of the testimony focused on allegations of a disparaging term, "Limp, Lame and Lazy," used to refer to a group of deputies unable to work because of injury or family medical leave.

Christianson testified that he used the term in a joking manner, and the county's attorney argued in court that the term was used at a time when sheriff's officials were frustrated with staff reductions forced by budget cuts.

Sheriff's Lt. Tori Hughes testified she heard the sheriff frequently use the term in his executive team meetings and once heard the department's business manager use the phrase in a meeting with Patterson city officials. Business manager Dan Wirtz denied Hughes' claim while on the witness stand, but Patterson City Manager Rod Butler testified he heard Wirtz use the term in a February meeting.

Murphy said the trial revealed problems at the Sheriff's Department that need to fixed. "Hopefully, nobody will ever use the term 'Limp, Lame and Lazy' again," Murphy said outside the courtroom.

In response, Assistant County Counsel Ed Burroughs pointed to the fact that the jury "unanimously found there was no discrimination on behalf of the county" against Wallace.

He said the jury just couldn't obtain a majority vote when deciding whether the county offered appropriate accommodations for Wallace to continue working after his injuries. The jurors also couldn't determine whether the county's process was adequate in helping Wallace find an appropriate job.

Nevertheless, Burroughs said the county will continue to work with Wallace in finding a county job that will allow him to work with his physical limitations. The county has offered Wallace a job as welfare fraud investigator and informed him of other job opportunities.

Velma Lim, an attorney representing the county, declined to comment. She referred questions to the county counsel's office.

Wallace was not in the courtroom Wednesday, nor were there any county officials in the audience as there had been throughout the trial. Only the attorneys were present when the jury told the judge there was nothing else it could do to reach a verdict.

"It's not the outcome I wanted, but again, it's not over," Wallace said by phone. "You never quit until you can't fight anymore."

The jury of seven men and five women entered the courtroom about 3 p.m. Wednesday, informing Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson it could not come up with a decision. Deliberations began late in the afternoon Aug. 7.

The judge thanked the jurors for their effort and told them they shouldn't feel bad about not reaching a verdict. He said they did exactly what the justice system requires them to do. "Sometimes, quite frankly, juries aren't able to reach a verdict," Johnson told the jurors in court.

Outside the courtroom, the jurors gathered to speak to the attorneys. Several jurors told the attorneys that the jury questionnaire, which guides them toward a verdict, was too complicated to achieve a majority consensus.

Nine out of 12 votes were needed to produce a verdict, but there were more than 10 questions the jurors had to answer and vote on. The jurors they spent a lot of time debating, but by the end, they just couldn't reach a verdict on some key issues.

The majority voted that Wallace could do the job of a deputy without presenting a danger to himself and others. The jury, however, voted unanimously that the county did not discriminate against him.

Wallace worked for the Sheriff's Department from 1997 to January 2011, when he was sent home because a doctor's examination concluded he no longer could work as a deputy.

Wallace said all he ever wanted was a chance to prove he can still be a deputy. More important, he wants to change the process so no other injured deputy will be forced out of the department, he said.

"They have the integrity, and they want to serve," Wallace said about sheriff's deputies. "It's never been about me just looking for a payday."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@ or (209) 578-2394.

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