Two years after the Spokane City Council said “hell no” to a deal offering a job and back pay to fired police Sgt. Brad Thoma, the city is headed for trial, accused of discrimination.
In a federal lawsuit, Thoma alleges that former police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick discriminated against him for being an alcoholic after she fired him in 2009. She took that action after Thoma drove drunk, rear-ended a pickup and fled a crash scene while off duty, then declined an offer to work in other city jobs.
A trial is scheduled to start April 15.
Earlier this month, the Spokane City Council extended its contract with a Seattle law firm to fight the lawsuit. The contract with Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes and Leitch was increased to $300,000, from $175,000.
“I approved the additional amount because Sgt. Thoma is not going to get a free ride on this,” Councilman Mike Fagan said. When voting against a proposed settlement deal in 2012, Fagan told the audience: “I not only say ‘No,’ but I say, ‘Hell no.’ ”
Thoma was off duty and driving a pickup on Sept. 23, 2009, when he hit another pickup near the intersection of Farwell Road and U.S. Highway 2, then drove away. The victim, who was not injured, and another driver followed Thoma to a supermarket. Thoma, whose blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.17 after the crash, avoided criminal prosecution under an agreement approved in Spokane County District Court.
After the incident, then-Chief Kirkpatrick declined to waive a judge’s requirement that Thoma drive only vehicles that start after a breath test confirms the driver hasn’t consumed alcohol. But the city offered to have him be considered for other city jobs until the interlock device requirement expired after two years. Kirkpatrick fired him in December 2009 after he declined that offer.
A year later, however, Kirkpatrick discovered that the law on interlock devices had changed and Thoma no longer needed her waiver in order to drive a police car without an interlock. She offered him his job back in a demoted detective’s position, but a Spokane Police Guild attorney declined the offer because it didn’t allow Thoma to seek pay for the period he was out of work.
A third attempt to settle the dispute, which was approved by Mayor David Condon, included the right to go back to work as a detective and $275,000 in back pay, but it was unanimously rejected by the Spokane City Council in February 2012.
Since then, Thoma has moved on.
Last summer, he was hired to be the police chief in Baudette, Minn., a town of about 1,200 on the Canadian border. Besides Thoma, the department has one full-time officer and a few part-time officers.
Baudette City Councilman Greg Johnson said Thoma was candid about his termination in Spokane before he was hired.
Baudette leaders are impressed with Thoma’s enthusiasm and experience, Johnson added. He said Thoma often is at the community’s school interacting with students and he’s started a vulnerable adult program to check in every week on citizens who are elderly or have disabilities. Thoma has briefed the Baudette council and the community about updating the department policies, such as rules on handling evidence.
“He’s done an excellent job,” Johnson said. “The public likes him.”
On Thursday, Sarah Mack, the attorney representing Spokane in the federal lawsuit, argued the case should be dismissed.
In a deposition last summer, Kirkpatrick told Thoma’s attorney Bob Dunn that she didn’t believe Thoma was an alcoholic. Kirkpatrick said she believed Thoma claimed he suffered from alcoholism as part of a strategy to get a deferred prosecution deal allowing charges to be dismissed eventually.
Even so, Mack said in court Thursday the city isn’t denying Thoma is an alcoholic. She told U.S. District Court Judge Edward Shea that Thoma was terminated for violating the law.
“We don’t need to accommodate the consequences of illegal activity,” Mack said.
Shea said he would rule on Mack’s request to dismiss the case within a week.
Susan Nelson, one of Thoma’s attorneys, argued the city breached a contract with Thoma because Condon signed the settlement deal and city law doesn’t require City Council approval of certain contracts, only of disbursement of money. She argued that once the council rejected the settlement deal, the money couldn’t be paid, but other parts of the deal were still in force and Thoma should have been given his job back.
“The city was bound to reinstate Thoma to his position,” Nelson said. “That’s all he wanted was to go back to work.”
Nelson also argued that Thoma was treated unfairly compared with other officers in trouble for allegedly breaking the law. She noted that after Officer Karl F. Thompson was indicted on federal felony charges, Kirkpatrick created a new job for him within the department with full pay and benefits. Thompson later was found guilty and sent to prison.
Mack noted the settlement signed by Condon stated that the state Human Rights Commission had to sign off, an action the commission declined to take.
The judge added that the contract stated clearly it was contingent on City Council approval.
Nelson told Shea on Thursday that Thoma was dropping four of the 11 claims he originally made to the court. Thoma no longer is seeking compensation for emotional distress, gross negligence or outrage.
Thoma’s lawsuit had claimed that the city and Kirkpatrick’s conduct was “so outrageous in character as to be absolutely intolerable in a civilized society and went beyond all possible bounds of decency.”
City Council members say they are content with letting the issue be considered by a jury.
“What occurred is such an affront to the general public that we feel we need to exercise all the city’s legal options to uphold a high standard of behavior,” Councilman Jon Snyder said.