Deputy is gone, but his lawsuit lives on

Dennis Wallace and his wife Mercedes Wallace are seen on Feb. 26. An appeals court sided with Dennis Wallace in his disability case.
Dennis Wallace and his wife Mercedes Wallace are seen on Feb. 26. An appeals court sided with Dennis Wallace in his disability case. Modesto Bee file

Deputy Dennis Wallace’s lawsuit against his Stanislaus County bosses did not die when he was gunned down on duty a week ago.

Yet to be determined is how much money the Sheriff’s Department owes Wallace for the two years he didn’t work, when the county said he was too injured and Wallace said he wasn’t.

Lawyers on both sides say the lawsuit will continue, with any payout going to Wallace’s estate or an equivalent entity. They expect that to be his widow, Mercedes Wallace.

Dennis Wallace had battled his employer for more than five years in court, including two trials and an appeal to the California Supreme Court. His next court date was scheduled for Dec. 5, but attorneys said they had been moving toward an out-of-court settlement when Wallace was slain Nov. 13 in what Sheriff Adam Christianson called “an execution.”

150Miles between the Nov. 13 homicide scene and location where David Machado was arrested four hours later

Wallace, 53, was patrolling the Fox Grove fishing access near Hughson when he was shot at close range, authorities say. David Machado, 38, was arrested in Tulare County a few hours later after a crime spree, according to authorities, and may face the death penalty. He has pleaded not guilty.

County management let Wallace go in January 2011 when a workers’ compensation doctor said his shoulder, ankle, knee and neck injuries were too much for a patrol deputy or bailiff to handle. He was “ecstatic,” he said, upon being reinstated two years later, after suing the county claiming disability discrimination.

The lawsuit came to trial in 2012 and sparked headlines for revelations that Christianson and other managers widely used the phrase “limp, lame and lazy” when referring to certain sick and injured employees. County administrators launched an independent investigation and Christianson apologized, and the trial ended in a hung jury.

The judge in a second trial, focused on whether the county adequately accommodated Wallace’s injuries, disallowed mention of “limp, lame and lazy.” Christianson testified, shaking hands with his deputy just before taking the witness stand. He said he didn’t recall Wallace challenging him to a footrace to prove his fitness for duty.

Dennis has done a great job over the years. His work with juvenile services and young people was spectacular.

Sheriff Adam Christianson, testifying at trial in 2013

Wallace felt he lost that trial – in which he sought $468,000 in unpaid wages and benefits and damages for emotional distress – because his attorney wasn’t allowed to demonstrate the department’s culture of devaluing employees.

“I can live with the loss,” Wallace said at the time, in May 2013. “The disheartening part is today a bully got stronger.”

Wallace stayed with the department, often talking about his love of law enforcement and interacting with students as a DARE officer. He was assigned to Hughson, a city that contracts with the county Sheriff’s Department for police services, and lived there as well.

Wallace appealed the verdict, contending that the judge gave wrong instructions to jurors by saying Wallace needed to prove the Sheriff’s Department harbored bias and ill will against disabled employees. Appellate justices then sided with Wallace; the county appealed to the state Supreme Court and lost; and the case was expected to return to Stanislaus courts for a third trial to determine what Wallace is owed.

(Dennis Wallace) could have milked the system and been on Easy Street for the rest of his life. He said, ‘No, I want to be a deputy sheriff. I’m not going to suck from the taxpayers when I can work.’

Stephen M. Murphy, attorney, in 2013

“Dennis stuck with it because he wanted to work as a deputy sheriff, and that was something he was not going to give up,” said Stephen M. Murphy, Wallace’s attorney. “I stuck with it because I believed in Dennis and that a great wrong had been done to him.”

When Wallace was killed, Christianson and other county leaders expressed deep sorrow and showered his memory with honor. The department is expected to play a role in a memorial service scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at CrossPoint Community Church, 1301 12th St., Modesto; a viewing will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday at Salas Brothers Funeral Chapel, 419 Scenic Drive in Modesto.

As for the lawsuit, “we’re going to make every attempt to work through this thing as expeditiously and painlessly as possible,” said County Counsel John Doering. “We have no desire to cause any further consternation or problems to his wife and family. We’re going to do what we need to be fair and reasonable.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390