A state appeals court ruled in favor of Stanislaus County sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Wallace, meaning his disability case will return to Superior Court for consideration of damages.
In the ruling Thursday, the 5th District Court of Appeal said Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson gave improper instructions to the jury during Wallace’s civil trial in 2013.
The ruling calls for a limited retrial to determine “the amount of damages resulting from the county’s decision to place Wallace on an unpaid leave of absence.” The former bailiff was put on leave from Jan. 5, 2011, to Jan. 30, 2013, based on an assessment he could not safely perform the duties.
Wallace charged in a lawsuit that county administrators discriminated against him because of his work-related disability. His attorneys appealed a May 2013 verdict that favored the county.
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Wallace said the ruling is an answer to “prayers and perseverance. I feel like a thousand pounds have been lifted off my chest.”
Attorney Stephen Murphy, representing Wallace, said the ruling Thursday could have a bearing on other employee disability cases in California because it clarified what is needed to prove a case.
“It is a vindication for Deputy Wallace,” Murphy said. “He has been fighting this battle for a long time.”
Attorneys for the county have painted Wallace as a deputy who tried to game the disability system, while Wallace claimed he was bullied by county administrators and not compensated for on-the-job injuries.
Wallace has tried to claim two years of missed wages and benefits, as well as damages for emotional distress, or a sum total of $468,000. He was reinstated to duty three years ago and works as a deputy in Hughson.
When the case is returned to the local court, a trial will be held only regarding the amount of damages Wallace deserves, Murphy said.
Deputy County Counsel Robert Taro said the county is reviewing the decision. “It just came out yesterday, and we will assess our options,” Taro said Friday. “We will determine the best course of action.”
According to the ruling, Johnson erred when he told the jury the plaintiff needed to prove the Sheriff’s Department’s discrimination against a disabled employee was based on ill will or animus.
Murphy said the three-judge panel ruled that disability discrimination is proved when an employer removes someone because of the disability.
Sheriff Adam Christianson did not return a phone message from The Bee seeking comment.
County attorneys maintained that Wallace submitted 15 claims over 16 years of county employment. He collected benefits in 10 of the 15 claims.
When Wallace’s lawsuit initially came to trial in 2012, the jury heard testimony that Sheriff’s Department managers referred to certain injured workers as “limp, lame and lazy.” Wallace’s first civil trial ended with a hung jury in August 2012.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321