A Spokane police officer fired in 2009 after a hit-and-run, drunken driving arrest lost his final claim for damages against the city Tuesday, though his attorney has vowed to appeal.
Bradley Thoma sued Spokane and former police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick following a three-year-long battle to reclaim his job and lost wages. Thoma said he has been diagnosed with alcoholism and should have received accommodations from the city when he was ordered to use an ignition interlock device on his car after his arrest in September 2009.
U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko, now retired, had previously thrown out several of Thoma’s complaints for $4 million in damages, including discrimination and breach of contract. On Tuesday, Suko’s successor, District Judge Salvador Mendoza, dismissed Thoma’s last remaining claim – that his employers retaliated against him.
Thoma’s attorney, Bob Dunn, said Wednesday the former Spokane police officer will appeal.
City Council President Ben Stuckart lauded the federal court’s decision.
He also said it validates the City Council’s rejection in 2012 of a settlement agreement brokered by city attorneys, Mayor David Condon and Thoma that would have reinstated Thoma as a detective and given him $250,000 in back pay and $15,000 in attorney’s fees. Dunn said at the time the council decision was a mistake that would waste taxpayer dollars.
“The dismissal of the charges proves the council was right, and we’re not idiots,” Stuckart said. “Bob Dunn, for all his bravado, the courts didn’t agree.”
Police cited Thoma for drunken driving after he struck a Mead woman’s vehicle at an intersection and then fled the scene. The woman and another motorist pursued Thoma, who was driving his personal pickup truck, to a grocery store parking lot. A Washington State Patrol trooper performed a breath test there that measured Thoma’s blood-alcohol level at more than twice the legal limit, according to court records. As part of a suspended sentence approved by a judge, Thoma was ordered to drive with an ignition locking device for two years.
Kirkpatrick, however, wouldn’t sign a waiver allowing him to drive a police car without the court-ordered ignition device and said it was impractical to outfit a police cruiser with the equipment. She offered to let Thoma be eligible for other city jobs while the court order was in place. At the end of those two years, Thoma was to be considered at the top of the list for re-employment with the department, though he would be demoted from sergeant to detective as punishment for his arrest.
Thoma rejected the offer. He was subsequently fired.
At a hearing prior to his dismissal in December 2009, Thoma said he informed his employers that he suffered from alcoholism, which he cited as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the claim rejected by Mendoza on Tuesday, Thoma said he had a right under state law to request “reasonable accommodations” for his disability, including the installation of the device inside his patrol car so he could remain on the force. Thoma alleged the department retaliated against him for making the request by firing him.
But Mendoza said this claim did not pass muster. He said Thoma’s allegation “misconstrues the purpose and legal requirements of a reasonable accommodation,” noting that the court already determined that he wasn’t discriminated against.
Dunn said he and Thoma were not surprised by Mendoza’s ruling. “The question is whether or not alcoholism is a disease,” Dunn said. “There’s a difference between what legislators have said and what the courts have said.”
Stuckart said Thoma’s transgressions were too egregious to reinstate him.
“When someone is drunk, and then runs from the scene of the crime, there’s no way they should have their job back,” Stuckart said.
Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan, who said “hell no” when voting against the proposed 2012 settlement agreement, said Wednesday that Thoma’s arrest may be evidence of a need for city supervisors to be more vigilant in helping employees who they suspect of having a drug or alcohol problem.
“The supervisors of that patrol unit, for whatever reason, by all appearances it seems as though they weren’t looking out for their troops,” Fagan said.
Although Condon originally supported settling with Thoma, he said Wednesday that he was confident the city would win the case.
“We presented a strong case and are pleased the judge agreed,” he said in an email response. “The result speaks for itself.”
Thoma is now police chief in Baudette, Minnesota. Baudette officials said in February they were pleased with Thoma’s performance and that he was candid about the case in Spokane prior to his hiring.
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