(CN) – The 9th Circuit reversed a jury’s $256,000 award to a former Seattle Municipal Court employee who was fired for allegedly fixing parking tickets, saying the case should not have gone to trial.
Bruce Eklund sued former Chief Judge Fred Bonner and several other administrators of the Seattle Municipal Court for wrongful termination and due process violations after he was fired in 2004 for reportedly colluding with a co-worker to reduce his payments on six parking tickets.
Bonner wrote Eklund a letter stating, in part: “The investigation fact-findings determined that you involved yourself in a plan to continue your monetary obligations and avoid penalties and that you benefitted financially from improper adjustments to your court record. … In all, your colleague took improper action on 10 citations belonging to you.”
Eklund was one of five municipal court employees fired for ticket-fixing. The others agreed to resign and file for unemployment benefits, but Eklund refused to settle. Instead, he sued Bonner and the Seattle Municipal Court, claiming court administrators told him to alter public records and conceal a report on magistrate fine reductions while his case was being investigated.
Bonner tried, unsuccessfully, to have the case thrown out on the basis of qualified immunity, but the case went to trial. The jury issued a split verdict on Eklund’s claims.
It found that Eklund had not been wrongfully fired, but that Bonner had violated Eklund’s due process rights by refusing to recuse himself in the wake of the allegations against court staff.
Jurors awarded Eklund nearly $500,000, which was later reduced to $256,000. Both Eklund and Bonner appealed.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco sided with Bonner, saying the chief judge “had no duty to recuse himself.”
“In error, the case went to trial,” Senior Circuit Judge John Noonan wrote.
“Absent extreme bias, a chief administrator is not disqualified from giving a hearing to an employee who has made charges against the employees of the institution but not against the chief personally,” Noonan added. “A chief judge in Bonner’s position could reasonably have believed that Bonner was not disabled by bias. He was therefore entitled in September 2006 to qualified immunity and dismissal of Eklund’s case against him.”
Noonan noted that there was no evidence that Bonner sought to cover up or conceal Eklund’s allegations against court administrators, or that he had any personal animosity toward Eklund.
“What Bonner expressed concern about was not criminal prosecution of himself but bad publicity for his court,” Noonan wrote. “His feelings were institutional, not personal. He was not disqualified as a decisionmaker at Eklund’s hearing. His renewed motions for qualified immunity should have been granted. Eklund’s appeal on the issue of economic damages is necessarily foreclosed by this opinion.”