Employment breach of contract claimed in settlement with terminated county employee. Defense verdict. Los Angeles County.

Summary

Long-time department of Probation Department employee claims pay and retirement benefits the county says he's not entitled to.

The Case

  • Case Name: Timothy Sturm v. County of Los Angeles Probation Department
  • Court and Case Number: Los Angeles County Superior Court MC025485
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Wednesday, December 15, 2021
  • Date Action was Filed: Friday, May 22, 2015
  • Type of Action: Breach of Contract, Employment
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Stephen Morgan
  • Plaintiffs:
    Timothy Sturm
  • Defendants:
    County of Los Angeles
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: Defense verdict
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    The jury determined that plaintiff’s delay in signing the agreement and applying for retirement amounted to a failure to perform and caused his claimed damages, for which the County was not liable.

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 9 days
  • Jury Deliberation Time: Approximately 1 hour
  • Jury Polls: 11 to 1 in favor of defense verdict.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Law Offices of Michael C. Murphy by Michael C. Murphy, Westlake Village.

    Law Offices of Constance N. Zarkoswki by Constance N. Zarkowski, Westlake Village.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Hausman & Sosa, LLP by Jeff M. Hausman, Larry D. Stratton and Lisa A. Grigg, Woodland Hills.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Plaintiff Sturm was an employee for 34 years of the County of Los Angeles Probation Department. He was discharged in 2010. He appealed his discharge to the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission and a hearing was held on July 11, 2011. Plaintiff did not want to settle with the County, but decided to do so after the hearing officer determined much of Sturm's evidence was not admissible.

    The remaining cause of action for the jury to determine in this case was for breach of contract. Under the agreement, plaintiff's discharge was to be rescinded and he was entitled to four and one-half months of backpay and to be reinstated from July 12 through September 30, 2011. He was to dismiss the appeal of his discharge and to retire on September 30, 2011.

    Plaintiff's discharge was rescinded, he was eventually paid the four and one-half months backpay, and in November 2012 was reinstated effective July 12, 2011. The tentative formal agreement was made on July 11, 2011 and was to be reduced to a formal integrated agreement. The written agreement was provided to plaintiff on July 25, 2011.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:

    Plaintiff alleged that the reinstatement period between July and September was to be with pay regardless of whether he worked.

    Also, that because he did not retire on September 30, 2011 and instead elected to retire on February 26, 2012, he lost $30,000 of retirement pay. He blamed the County because he was unaware that he could not apply for retirement retroactively. However, plaintiff admitted that he intentionally did not retire on September 30, 2011 as he was required to do by the agreement because he wanted to reserve his appeal rights with the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission.

  • Defendant's Contentions:

    That plaintiff admitted to purposely delaying signing the agreement until after the reinstatement period. The evidence showed that he could not be reinstated until he signed the agreement and without being reinstated, he could not be assigned to work and without working he could not be paid.

    Los Angeles County Employee Retirement Association (LACERA), an entity separate from the County, administers and controls the retirement benefits for County employees. The County contended that the County Code prevented the County from paying a reinstated employee for work not performed during the reinstatement period. Since plaintiff did not sign the agreement until November 3, 2011 and the agreement was not fully executed until December 22, 2011 when plaintiff’s attorney signed it, then he could not be reinstated and assigned work until December 22 after plaintiff was required to retire.

    When he was reinstated retroactively, he had not worked and therefore was not owed any pay for that period. The County also contended that because it was plaintiff’s duty to retire and the County could not apply for or control his retirement, the County was not liable for any loss that plaintiff claimed for the delay in his retirement. 

Injuries and Other Damages

  • Plaintiff sought damages for pay not received for the reinstatement period in which he did not work from July 12 through September 30, 2011 in the amount of $17,500.

    He also sought $30,000 for the retirement benefits he would have received from LACERA if he had applied for retirement on September 30, 2011 instead of February 26, 2012. Additionally, he asked for ten years’ worth of interest at 10% per annum.

    Originally, plaintiff also sought emotional distress damages on his breach of contract action. The judge ruled that evidence of such damages were not admissible as emotional distress damages are not ordinarily available for breach of contract claims. The Court ruled that plaintiff's contract to overturn his discharge and allow him to retire was not the type of contract in which emotional distress damages are not foreseeable.

Additional Notes

Additional causes of action for specific performance and declaratory relief were heard by the Court. The County agreed to a non-monetary breach related to two documents – a letter of commendation and a safety policy-related memo to be distributed to employees. The documents were provided for under the contract and which were provided to plaintiff after the lawsuit was filed. Plaintiff was not satisfied with the contents of these documents and the County stipulated to correct the issues to these documents. In its judgment, the Court found that the County had substantially complied and ordered, adjudged and decreed that plaintiff take nothing and costs be awarded to the County and against plaintiff.

Disclaimer

This is not an official court document. While the publisher believes the information to be accurate, the publisher does not guarantee it and the reader is advised not to rely upon it without consulting the official court documents or the attorneys of record in this matter who are listed above.

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