Judge upholds most of $2M award for wrongfully fired APD lieutenant
A federal judge has slightly reduced a jury’s award for an Anchorage police officer wrongfully terminated by the municipality, rejecting its claims that the remaining nearly $2 million should be further cut.
A Thursday order from Senior U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline cut $320,000 from a federal jury's nearly $2.3 million verdict in November for former APD Lt. Anthony Henry, due to a limit on emotional distress awards under state law.
The revised award of $1,966,521.60 still leaves the municipality paying Henry just over $6.65 for every person in Anchorage, based on its population last year of 295,365.
Henry’s attorneys said he was forced out of a 23-year career at APD after being targeted for trying to help a colleague with a sensitive medical condition. Lawyers for the municipality contended that Henry had compromised an investigation of drug dealing and sexual assault within the Alaska Army National Guard, by leaking confidential informants’ names and lying to an investigator.
In a December federal court filing, the municipality said Henry had failed to legally exhaust his means for a remedy through arbitration. The filing claimed that Henry had tacitly “settled” his initial grievance by not requesting arbitration under municipal policy of a mayoral decision regarding his April 1, 2015 firing.
The U.S. district court judge, however, disagreed with the municipality, noting that “(t)here is nothing in the rules that clearly indicates when an employee has adequately exhausted his administrative remedies.”
“Henry elected to not take action to advance to the arbitration level, instead filing suit in state court,” Beistline wrote. “He did not ‘settle’ his grievance.”
Beistline also rejected a bid by the municipality to cut Henry’s award of back pay from 1,292 days to 470 days, based on Henry’s July 15, 2016 return of a certificate to the Alaska Police Standards Council allowing him to conduct Alaska law-enforcement work. The municipality’s argument hinged on the claim that Henry’s return of the certificate meant that he “voluntarily agreed to not seek employment in Alaska as a police officer.”
"But the Court notes that the fact that Henry could not work using his police certificate was related to his termination, which has now been deemed wrongful," Beistline wrote. "Accordingly, it would not be equitable to penalize him as of the date he 'surrendered' his police certificate (if he even did so)."
The municipality’s argument that Henry wasn’t entitled to any award for emotional distress, let alone the $720,000 he was awarded by the jury, was also rejected by Beistline who noted that courts have allowed large emotional-distress awards to stand in other cases.
All parties, however, agreed that the jury award exceeded a $400,000 limit set by state law on non-economic awards in civil cases, and Beistline reduced the amount accordingly in his order.
Thursday’s order concluded with a note from the judge that the issues on which Henry’s suit turned were “close,” due in part to ambiguous municipal code, adding that “the jury’s award was on the high side on every item of damages.”
“This, combined with the time and expense involved with further litigation, would strongly suggest that a negotiated resolution of this matter would be in the best interests of the parties and in the interest of justice,” Beistline wrote.
Kristin DeSmith, a spokeswoman for Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s office, said nobody from the municipality was available for comment Monday on the revised award due to the Seward’s Day holiday.
Meg Simonian, Henry’s attorney in the suit, said she took the order as a clear victory on the case’s merits.
“We believe that it’s a complete vindication of the jury’s verdict and the law associated with the verdict at trial,” Simonian said.
Simonian said she read Beistline’s conclusion, as a rare addition of personal opinion from the bench, to indicate that “he did not think this case should be appealed.” Simonian had sent Berkowitz’s office a December request to discuss a settlement, but “it was ignored.”
Beistline’s order will hopefully deter the municipality from an appeal, Simonian said, noting the seven-figure sum of taxpayer money — beyond the revised award for Henry — it has already spent on fees for Portland-based attorneys.
“The amount of money that the city has paid that law firm is ridiculous, and they do not have the kind of appellate points to justify spending the money to do that,” Simonian said.
Whether or not the municipality appeals the reduced verdict, Simonian said Henry still faces additional legal fees as he plans to defend himself before the Alaska Police Standards Council.
“It’s kind of like a nightmare that never ends for Tony Henry,” she said. “But luckily he’s someone who believes in doing the right thing, and never giving up when you’ve done the right thing.”
Janis Harper contributed information to this story.
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