(CN) – The D.C. Circuit reinstated a lawsuit filed by former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, who accused the government of destroying a performance review that would have exonerated her after she was fired for talking to the media about budget woes.
Reversing dismissal of the suit, the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., said a reasonable juror could find that the Department of the Interior had intentionally destroyed the document.
The decision sends the case back to trial.
Chambers was fired in 2004 for violating the chain-of-command when she expressed concerns about the safety of the nation’s monuments in an interview with the Washington Post. She was offered her job back a week later on the condition that she first get approval before talking to the media or any member of Congress.
Chambers declined, was fired and filed suit. During deposition, her boss, then-deputy director of the National Park Service Donald Murphy, testified that in late summer 2003, he prepared a final performance evaluation.
Chambers hoped to use the document to show that it lacked any mention of claims that she ever violated any chain-of-command, but claimed she was “denied access” to the appraisal during the proceedings.
The letter could not be found. On Feb. 24, 2005, Chambers filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the DOI for its “willful refusal to provide the records requested.”
Former Human Resources Chief Terrie Fajardo testified that she kept copies of the evaluation on her computer hard drive, on a floppy disk and in a filing cabinet. But when the disk turned up, it contained only a portion of the evaluation, and the part “that was supposed to have been marked where the comments were” wasn’t there.
A page-by-page search in September 2006 of the actual physical file turned up empty. Fajardo also claimed that her old computer couldn’t be searched because it had been wiped out and prepared for disposal.
The district court dismissed Chambers’ complaint, concluding that the government agency had adequately searched for the missing appraisal. Chambers appealed.
In reversing the dismissal, Judge Henderson added that, should Chambers prevail, her available remedies may be limited given the fact that “additional searches at this late date would likely prove futile.” Nonetheless, she may be entitled to reasonable attorney fees.