Stanislaus County to pay $1.4 million in lawyers' fees in 'limp, lame and lazy' lawsuit

Dennis Wallace and his wife, Mercedes, are pictured on Feb. 26, 2016.
Dennis Wallace and his wife, Mercedes, are pictured on Feb. 26, 2016. Modesto Bee file

A judge ordered Stanislaus County to pay nearly $1.4 million in fees to attorneys of a deputy sheriff who for six years pursued a discrimination lawsuit against his employer, the county Sheriff's Department.

Dennis Wallace, 53, was slain on the job in November 2016 in a tragedy not related to his lawsuit. The lawsuit was resolved a year ago when the county agreed to pay his widow, Mercedes Wallace, $253,000 in a settlement without admitting wrongdoing.

"I'm happy for (our lawyers)," Mercedes Wallace said Wednesday about the award for attorneys' fees. "I know Dennis felt really bad (that they hadn't been paid). And they, just like Dennis, were proven right."

County Counsel John Doering said he will discuss next-step options, including an appeal, with county supervisors next week in closed session.

The couple's attorneys had taken Dennis Wallace's case on contingency and received no pay for six years — now seven — of work, including two trials that they mostly lost. Wallace had sued the Sheriff's Department for idling him for two years without pay, saying he was too injured to work while he said he wasn't. He had suffered back, neck, shoulder and knee injuries.

The case came to trial in 2012 and revealed that Sheriff Adam 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. The trial ended in a hung jury.

Jurors in a second trial sided with the county, declining to award Wallace $468,000 in unpaid wages and benefits and damages for emotional distress. But Wallace took it to a higher court, appellate justices agreed with him, and the case was about to return to Stanislaus courts to determine what he was owed in back pay, when he was killed.

Wallace was nearing retirement when he was gunned down while checking a stolen van at the Fox Grove fishing access near Hughson, his longtime home, and suspect David Machado was arrested a few hours later. His murder case is suspended because of questions regarding Machado's mental capacity.

Wallace's funeral drew thousands, including hundreds of officers from several states and dignitaries such as Gov. Jerry Brown. The deputy had been popular with schools where he worked for years on anti-drug campaigns, especially in Salida and Hughson.

"(The appeals court) clearly finds, as a matter of law, (the county) discriminated against Deputy Wallace," noted Stanislaus Judge Timothy Salter in the recent ruling. "This is vitally important" in the dispute over attorneys' fees, Salter continued.

Despite the settlement with Mercedes Wallace, county attorneys contended that a million dollars or so for her lawyers would be "excessive and unreasonable," Doering said last year.

Salter disagreed. He noted that the San Francisco firm hired by the Wallaces had gone without pay for more than six years and "did demonstrate above-average skill in securing positive results. This case was not your 'run of the mill' disability discrimination case," Salter said in his ruling.

The Wallaces' lead attorney, Stephen M. Murphy, since has been appointed a judge in San Francisco.

Salter relied on case law allowing compensation for attorneys who attempt to enforce "important rights affecting the public interest." Without hope for such pay, attorneys would not take such risks, the theory goes.

In addition to awarding Murphy's former firm $1.37 million in fees, Salter also ordered the county to reimburse court costs of $98,702 for a total of $1.47 million.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390