In 2007, James Ward sold his San Diego-area dental practice and moved to Blythe, the remote desert town between Los Angeles and Phoenix.
The reason for the dramatic switch: a job he took at Ironwood State Prison.
Since then, Ward lost the $22,000-per-month chief dentist position, and he's been fighting with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to get it back. The case has implications for how the state handles hiring and terminations.
An administrative law judge with the State Personnel Board, which hears state government dismissal disputes, said last year that Ward should be returned to the job with back pay. The board rejected the ruling and heard the case for itself last month.
The essential facts aren't in dispute, according to briefs filed with the board.
Ward applied six years ago for a posted temporary chief dentist position that "may become full time in the future." After his interview, a department official verbally offered Ward a "permanent full-time" job. He accepted.
A letter confirmed the job's status. So did hiring papers Ward filled out before he started work on July 2, 2007. About two weeks later, however, he received a notice that the position was "limited term," and would end July 1, 2009.
A personnel staffer told Ward he had to sign the notice to be paid. He took the matter to his regional supervisor, Lynda Mixon. She told him not to worry. Ward's job would become permanent, she said, once the person he replaced received a permanent spot at department headquarters.
With that assurance, he signed the notice. The headquarters appointment went through, but Ward's job status didn't change.
In October 2008, the department started looking for a permanent chief dentist to take Ward's temporary slot. He applied. Mixon told him he was the most qualified applicant, according to court records.
Prison Health Care Manager Dr. John Culton didn't sign off on the hire, citing an equal opportunity complaint by a subordinate who Ward had recommended shouldn't pass probation. Ward denies he ever discriminated against the employee.
Ward hasn't worked since his job ended nearly three years ago.
Corrections employees made mistakes, state lawyers admit, but they say there was never a permanent job to fill at the prison. A ruling for Ward would mean unauthorized "lower level bureaucrats or supervisors" would have de facto power to create civil service jobs, they say.
Besides, the state's lawyers note, Ward signed the job status notice.
Ward's attorneys say the job was an illegally voided permanent position. State law says only the Personnel Board can void job appointments within a year. Siding with the state would give departments new power to break job promises.
Look for a decision from the board within a few weeks. Then it's on to civil litigation in the courts.