More Grist For the "They Can't Be Fired" Argument
by Michael Fox
I have noted a couple of times in this new year concerns involving the difficulty and costs of litigation with public employees. See my posts here and here. The ongoing saga of the Grand Rapids police department and two of its former officers does nothing to dispel that concern. First, in 2001 nine female officers including Patricia Denhof and Renee LeClear filed a sexual harassment suit against the department. Some of the claims were dismissed on summary judgment and a state court jury decided in favor of the police department on the rest of the claims, including the claims of Denhof and LeClear. That case apparently remains on appeal.
But following the jury verdict, the Police Chief, based in part on testimony during the trial and comments of the judge who called Denhof's claims "grossly exaggerated," required Denhof and LeClear to submit to fitness for duty evaluations. Found "unstable" they were involuntarily separated from the force.
That action resulted in a federal lawsuit for retaliation, tried this past December. This time the two officers were much happier with the outcome. On December 13, 2004 a jury returned a $5 million verdict in favor of the two officers. TV station WZZM had the story of the verdict on its website. According to one of the attorneys for the two fired officers quoted here:
We asked for $1.7 million each, and the jury nearly doubled that by awarding $2.5 million each. That is unheard of, but the jury was disgusted and was sending a message to the city that 'you were wrong.'
U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist is still sorting out the final judgment, but according to a story
at the WOOD TV site, it appears each will receive a million dollars in compensatory damages plus backpay ($128,000 for LeClear, $161,000 for Denhof) and front pay of up to $1.2 each depending on whether they are reinstated.
And as in other cases I have written about, the local press has an opinion. Commenting from the safety of the editorial pages
, the Grand Rapids Press offered the following:
This was a management and employee-relations error that could easily have been avoided. The City Commission now must be sure that others within city government don't blunder into the same situation. The employees are due that commitment. So are taxpayers.
File that one in the "beauty of hindsight and unhelpful information" category.
But in the truly useful information category, take note of this comment
, "I would much prefer to have a good retaliation case than a discrimination case," said attorney H. Rhett Pinsky, an employment-litigation specialist, who was not involved in either case.
Now that is helpful information.