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Ousted Racing Official Can Recover Lost Income

(CN) - The Delaware racing commission must compensate a horse-racing judge whom it refused to reinstate even after he beat cheating charges, the state Supreme Court ruled.

Donald Harmon had worked as presiding judge of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, supervising other racing officials, since 1998.

In January 2004, however, state police charged Harmon with having changed the documents a year earlier to let an ineligible horse meet the standards for a qualifying race.

Though two monitoring judges determined that the horse broke stride during the race, Harmon had changed that ruling and let the horse qualify after determining the break could not have been avoided.

After the commission suspended Harmon without pay pending the criminal case, Harmon asked racing administrator John Wayne whether his acquittal would lead to reinstatement. Wayne testified at trial that the commissioners authorized him to advise Harmon that he would.

Harmon was acquitted and sued when the commission did not reinstate him. His complaint alleged bad faith, abuse of process, violation of the Delaware Whistle Blower's Act and promissory estoppel.

A Delaware jury ultimately ruled in his favor on the promissory estoppel claim and awarded $102,000 in damages, but the Kent County court later awarded the commission judgment as a matter of law.

The Delaware Supreme Court reversed unanimously last week.

"We hold that the racing official's promissory estoppel claim, which the jury accepted, subjected the commission to liability," Justice Carolyn Berger wrote for the five-member panel. "Accordingly, the trial court's entry of judgment in favor of the Commission must be reversed."

Promissory estoppel claims can be brought against the state in the context of employment, according to the ruling.

"The evidence readily supports a finding that the commission promised to support Harmon," Berger wrote, pointing primarily to Wayne's testimony.

Moreover, the jury's award represented only the damages Harmon suffered by relying on the commission's promise. Harmon testified that he did not look for other jobs and turned down potential employment while waiting to be reinstated.

"During the time that he was waiting to be reinstated ... Harmon could not accept another job, and suffered lost income as a result," Berger wrote. "That lost income constitutes reliance damages."

The $102,000 award represents approximately one year of lost earnings and a small amount of interest, the court noted.

"That award is not shocking," according to the ruling.

Harmon now works part-time as a racing judge at Harrah's in Chester, Pa.

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