Stanislaus County asks state Supreme Court to consider deputy’s discrimination case

Dennis Wallace is pictured in February 2016 at Gemperle Fields in Turlock, Calif. An appellate court recently sided with the Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputy over his disability case.
Dennis Wallace is pictured in February 2016 at Gemperle Fields in Turlock, Calif. An appellate court recently sided with the Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputy over his disability case.

Stanislaus County wants the state Supreme Court to review an appellate court’s decision on a sheriff deputy’s disability case because it affects how employee discrimination cases will be resolved in the future.

“It really puts the county and other counties – and other employers – in a difficult position to try and resolve these claims,” County Counsel John Doering said.

Deputy Dennis Wallace’s case made headlines with revelations in 2012 that Sheriff’s Department managers referred to certain injured employees as “limp, lame and lazy.”

In late February, the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno assigned new importance to the case with a ruling that, according to the county, makes it much easier for disabled employees in California to prove an employer discriminated against them.

Doering said the costs of appealing to the Supreme Court pales in comparison to the costs of settling discrimination claims if the ruling stands.

The appellate court found that Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson gave improper instructions to the jury in Wallace’s 2013 civil trial, when he told jurors the plaintiff needed to prove the Sheriff’s Department’s discrimination against a disabled employee was based on ill will or animus. The jury’s verdict went in favor of the county, but Wallace appealed.

In a published opinion, the three-judge panel wrote that disability discrimination is proved simply when an employer removes someone from work because of a disability. The court ordered that Wallace’s case be returned to Superior Court for a third trial to determine the amount of damages he’s owed.

The county asked the 5th District court to reconsider the ruling and, after the request was denied last month, had outside attorneys petition the Supreme Court to hear the matter. The county’s 80-page petition was filed April 4.

“The Court of Appeal is imposing a strict liability requirement on employers, leaving employers in a very difficult position to defend themselves against claims of disability discrimination,” said Morin Jacob, managing partner with Liebert, Cassidy, Whitmore, a San Francisco law firm that represents the county.

Jacob said the appellate court ruling sets a new standard for employee claims against public- or private-sector employers that involve work-related injuries or for any employee who claims discrimination because of a disability.

Wallace has maintained the Sheriff’s Department and county have resisted and caused unnecessary delays for employees who have sought compensation for on-the-job injuries.

Stephen Murphy, Wallace’s attorney, said in February the 5th District ruling could have a bearing on other employee discrimination cases in the state. He said Friday, however, that he doubted the Supreme Court will review the case. “I don’t think the (5th District ruling) is a departure from established law,” he said. “It is a reaffirmation of established law.”

Wallace claims the county owes him wages and benefits, plus damages for emotional distress, for being placed on leave from January 2011 through January 2013 based on an assessment he was not physically able to perform his duties. The plaintiff, who has sought a total sum of $468,000, was reinstated to duty three years ago and works as a patrol deputy.

The first trial of Wallace’s lawsuit in 2012 ended with a hung jury.

Jacob said that Wallace needed to show the county harbored a discriminatory bias against him because of his disability. She said the department placed him on leave to protect himself, co-workers and the public, based on a medical opinion that his work-related injuries made him unable to work as a bailiff.

She suggested the appellate court went out on its own, without relying on existing law, to create a new standard for proving discrimination.

Murphy said his response to the county’s petition is due Monday.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321