New trial rehashes Stanislaus deputy's discrimination claims

gstapley@modbee.comMay 14, 2013 

DN Heroes 1

Four people, from left, Hughson Ambulance's Tom Crowder, Stanislaus Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Wallace, City of Hughson employee Brian Holloway, and residents Matt Spears are being commended for preventing a suicide by train at this crossing at E. Whitmore and Santa Fe Avenues in Hughson on July 17, 2008. They all know each other as well. August 12, 2008. (Debbie Noda/The Modesto Bee)

DEBBIE NODA — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

— A new trial to resolve a deputy's discrimination claims kicked off Tuesday, with Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson expected to testify next week.

Deputy Dennis Wallace's lawsuit last year revealed the Sheriff's Department's use of a "limp, lame and lazy" list during the first trial, which ended in August with a hung jury. The phrase prompted a public apology from Christianson two weeks later, but it did not surface Tuesday as lawyers squared off for the legal do-over.

Wallace "loves his job" but suffered numerous on-the-job injuries, said his attorney, Stephen Murphy. Each time, Wallace recovered and returned to work, but the county let him go in January 2011 with no warning, nine months after his final return, Murphy said.

"The county repaid Dennis' sacrifice of his body and his dedication by sending him home without pay," the attorney said.

The county relied on a medical opinion by a worker compensation doctor, both sides said, overruling the surgeon who had cleared Wallace nine months before. The second doctor didn't want Wallace on street patrol but cleared him for the court bailiff position he occupied when dismissed, leaving him "distraught and very upset," Murphy said.

Wallace requested that a third doctor settle the matter with a "fitness for duty" exam, but the county refused until recently. He passed the test, was reinstated in January and since has worked patrol — a more physically demanding position than bailiff — with no problem, Murphy said.

At issue is Wallace's loss of two years of pay and benefits. He claims that the county refused to accommodate his disability or engage in an interactive process required before cutting loose a worker.

The department faces other lawsuits brought by two former deputies who say they were forced out after being injured, with insufficient interaction. Another department detective was reinstated and given back pay after threatening to sue for a reassignment he felt was punitive, prompting new policy mandating such give-and-take negotiations.

Morin Jacob, the county's attorney, painted Wallace as eager to take advantage of injury leave. He refused other jobs that don't require carrying a firearm and whose retirement benefits aren't as generous, she said.

Wallace filed 15 claims for worker compensation in 16 years, Jacob said, including one for debris in his eyes on a windy day and another for a hernia suffered while not on the job. His unresolved worker compensation claims are not part of the trial.

"We follow restrictions we get from doctors," Jacob said. "We don't follow the opinions of our employees on whether they can be placed in a job. Why? For the safety of the officer, for the safety of his co-workers and for the safety of the public, the citizens the Sheriff's Department serves."

Budget cuts forced the sheriff to lay off 72 deputies about the same time Wallace was dismissed, Jacob said.

Sgt. Glenn Cadwell, who supervised Wallace's bailiff work before Cadwell's semiretirement, testified that Wallace was well-liked and capable of protecting people. "Model employee, as far as I was concerned," Cadwell said.

Since his return after two years away, "We're thrilled he's able to be back working on patrol," Jacob said. But before, she said, "the county could only go by the doctor's opinion."

The trial will continue at 9:30 a.m. today in Department 23 on the fourth floor of the City Tower building, 801 10th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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