Stanislaus sheriff apologizes for 'limp, lame and lazy' description

rahumada@modbee.comAugust 16, 2012 

JBL Deputy Killed 10

JOAN BARNETT LEE / jlee@modbee.com Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson arrives on scene where a deputy was killed on Chrysler Drive on Thursday morning (04-12-12) in Modesto Ca.

JOAN BARNETT LEE — Modesto Bee

— Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson has publicly apologized for using the term "limp, lame and lazy" when referring to a list of deputies unable to work because of injuries or family medical leave.

The list's name was the focus of some testimony in a civil trial that ended Wednesday with a hung jury. Former deputy Dennis Wallace sued Stanislaus County, alleging discrimination after he was forced out of his job early last year.

Wallace claims Christianson, his administrative staff and the county did not allow him to return to work after a series of on-duty injuries.

Christianson testified at the trial he used the term "limp, lame and lazy" when dealing with staff reductions forced by budget cuts. He said Thursday he regrets making those comments.

"They were never meant to be disparaging or demeaning," Christianson said. "The comments were simply made out of frustration."

In a letter to The Bee, Christianson wrote, "I offer my sincerest apologies to those individuals affected and to the community we serve."

Wallace said Thursday that Christianson's apology doesn't seem to be sincere. He said it's a first step in acknowledging the sheriff made mistakes, but comes too late.

"Any apology is great, but why wasn't it done at trial? Why wasn't it done before trial?" Wallace said. "If he was truly sincere, why didn't he apologize at trial?"

Christianson said his apology is sincere. He said his decisions are never based on partisan politics and he's not worried about his chances for re-election in two years.

"I regret using the term; it has caused some heartache (within the department)," Christianson said.

In the letter, Christianson wrote: "… I too am accountable for comments I made out of frustration, dealing with a complicated workers' compensation system and while my comments were never intended to be derogatory or demeaning, I alone am accountable and responsible for those comments and comments made by command staff."

Frequently referred to list?

Sheriff's Lt. Tori Hughes testified at Wallace's trial that she heard the sheriff frequently refer to the "limp, lame and lazy" list in executive team meetings, as well as other department leaders. Hughes is the police chief in Patterson and has acknowledged she may run for sheriff in 2014.

The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for four days. The majority voted that Wallace could do the job of a deputy without presenting a danger to himself and others.

"The jury overwhelmingly found that I was, in fact, able to perform my job as a deputy sheriff and the jury found that I could do so safely," Wallace said. "Since Jan. 5, 2011, the Sheriff's Department has refused to return me to work on the basis that I could not perform my job safely. So, I feel vindicated by the jury's finding."

But the jury couldn't obtain a majority of nine votes when deciding whether the county offered Wallace appropriate accommodations 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.

In his public apology letter, Christianson pointed to the fact that the jurors voted unanimously that the Sheriff's Department and the county did not discriminate against Wallace.

"I want the community to know we don't discriminate against anybody; we don't harass; we don't abuse," Christianson said by phone Thursday. "We didn't discriminate against Mr. Wallace."

The sheriff said the department did everything it could to get Wallace back to work. He did acknowledge that there were mistakes made in the process in helping Wallace find a new job with the county, which was the result of budget-related administrative cutbacks.

"We could've done a better job," Christianson said.

Since the case ended with a hung jury, Wallace will get a new trial. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson has scheduled the attorneys to return to court Aug. 27 for a case management conference.

Frivolous lawsuits

In the interview Thursday, the sheriff referenced the civil case of former former department clerk Lydia Lopez as an example of frivolous lawsuits filed by employees. The jury in that case ruled in favor of the Sheriff's Department.

Lopez claimed to have suffered severe retaliation after reporting sexual advances by a co-worker who was promoted, while she was reassigned to a unit commanded by the man's father-in-law.

In his apology letter, Christianson wrote: "Lawsuits filed by employees are a direct result of holding them accountable to a higher standard of conduct, behavior and performance, not because we abuse them, harass them or discriminate against them."

In another lawsuit filed by a former employee, the county and Christianson settled a sexual harassment case before trial with a $42,500 payout to the plaintiff.

Valine Sarmas initially sought $1 million in damages when she sued in federal court, alleging Sgt. Pedro Beltran kissed and groped her, and showed her a cell phone video of him having sex with another sheriff's employee.

The lawsuit claimed a lieutenant and Christianson knew about the alleged abuse and responded by subjecting Sarmas to an internal affairs investigation into whether a gang member was her boyfriend. She was terminated before completing six months' probation.

Even though the jury could not reach a verdict in his case, Wallace said his lawsuit already has forced the county to improve its interactive process of working with injured employees and provided some training to managers.

And just before the trial was about to start, Wallace said the county finally agreed to offer him a fitness-for-duty exam to prove he can still work as a deputy.

"All I ever wanted to do was come back to work," Wallace said. "It's more than just winning."

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

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