Elk Grove News

Laid off parks director accuses Galt of age discrimination

Galt’s former parks director is seeking more than $1.3 million in damages for the emotional turmoil he says he suffered when the city laid him off toward the end of the economic downturn two years ago.

Boyce Jeffries says the city on Sacramento County’s southern border got rid of him in May 2011 because he was too old. A trial on his age-discrimination suit is now getting ready to wrap up in Sacramento Superior Court.

Attorneys for the city of 24,000 say age had nothing to do with Jeffries losing a job that paid him $165,575 in wages and benefits, but that the decision was driven solely by a two-year budget shortfall of $1 million.

As of Monday, jurors had listened to 22 days of testimony. The trial then broke for the holidays and will resume on Jan. 6.

Jeffries was 54 when the city let him go after 27 years of employment.

“And now he was nothing, kicked in the teeth and involuntarily put out to pasture when he was not ready or financially able to do so,” Jeffries’ attorney, Lawrance A. Bohm, said in his trial brief.

Depression set in after the termination, the lawyer said. Since then, “Jeffries has been going through the motions of life, without fulfillment, but with sadness, humiliation and embarrassment over how he was treated after giving 27 years of his life to the city of Galt,” the brief said.

Toward the end of October, not long before his case was assigned to Judge Alan G. Perkins for trial, the city offered Jeffries a job as a recreational coordinator, which he accepted. He earns $41,000 a year, plus $35,000 in benefits. He’s currently on paid administrative leave, pending the conclusion of his case.

Jeffries augments his income by working at a Rite Aid for $12.28 an hour, according to Bohm’s brief, still not enough to maintain what had been a comfortable lifestyle, the brief said.

“He had to sell his farm of five acres that he and his family loved and move out of the Galt area to a foreclosed home in Elk Grove and restart his life,” Bohm wrote.

In their court papers, defense attorneys Carolee G. Kilduff and Serena M. Sanders said the city by early 2011 had gone through three years of furloughs, position freezes and a halt of capital spending. It wasn’t until then that it decided it had to lay off some people to save another $550,000, the lawyers said in their trial brief.

City Manager Jason Behrmann chose Jeffries’ position, as well as those of the community development director and a full-time police sergeant “for inclusion in the city’s reduction-in-force” plan, the defense brief said.

Galt offered Jeffries and Community Development Director Curt Campion two years of retirement credit toward their pensions, plus a lump sum of $15,000 each, if they retired. Campion, who was 55, took the deal. Jeffries did not and was subsequently laid off. The city was able to use federal funds to keep the sergeant, who was in his mid- to late-40s, on the police force.

“A city must be able to make difficult decisions during economic hard times,” the defense brief said. “The mounting pressure on city finances in 2011, caused by three years of unprecedented economic decline, forced the city to take measures to prevent insolvency; it was this harsh reality, and not his age, that resulted in Mr. Jeffries’ layoff.”

One of the most contested pieces of evidence in the trial has been The Galt Herald’s coverage of the layoffs.

The paper ran a story on March 16, 2011, that said Behrmann, in a meeting at The Herald, said that he “targeted older, more experienced employees who he felt had a better chance at … ‘landing on their feet’ in terms of finding subsequent employment.” The story also attributed to Behrmann information that said the city layoff plan would safeguard “younger employees with young families to support.”

Bohm’s brief said the remarks attributed to Behrmamn demonstrate that age was a factor in the city’s layoff decision and that the city manager tacitly endorsed the thrust of the article by not asking for a correction or retraction. Three days after the story ran, Behrmann also called the author of the story, former Herald reporter/editor Rachael Ackerman, and left her a voicemail telling her “she had done a great job on the story,” the brief said.

In their brief, the city’s lawyers said that Behrmann denied saying anything during his meeting at The Herald about targeting older workers or safeguarding younger ones. Behrmann did acknowledge saying at the meeting he wanted to help the older employees “land on their feet,” but only “in the context of helping the laid-off employees transition” into retirement, “not as part of his decision-making process,” the city’s brief said.,

Defense lawyers harshly criticized Ackerman, saying she was a friend of Jeffries who had become “emotionally involved” in the story. Their brief quoted Ackerman as telling her boss at the paper that if Jeffries won any money as the result of a lawsuit, he “is going to owe me.” Asked about the comment in a deposition, Ackerman said, “Everybody fantasizes about sharing in millions,” the defense brief said.

Ackerman could not be reached for comment this week. Galt Herald publisher David Herburger said in an interview Monday the paper let her go in December 2011 in a staff reduction of its own.

As for the story, Herburger said, “We had a meeting (with Behrmann) and we published what we published.” Since the story ran, he said, “it’s been a struggle to keep them from circumventing the shield law,” which protects reporters from being subpoenaed to divulge confidential sources or unpublished material.

The lawyers also have battled over the city of Galt’s true financial picture at the time Jeffries was laid off. Bohm said Berhmann’s budgetary estimations were “wildly off the mark,” and that by the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, the city had $1.3 million more on hand than the manager had projected a year earlier. The defense team called the city’s financial improvement “modest” and that information on the revenue uptick wasn’t available to Behrmann until November – six months after the layoff.

In breaking down the economic damages they are seeking for Jeffries, the plaintiff’s lawyers in their trial brief said he is entitled to $266,759 in back pay – his salary and benefits from the time of his termination, minus what he has made in retail jobs he has worked over the past two years.

Plaintiffs attorneys also say that Jeffries should get “front pay” for economic damages going forward seven years, when he would have been expected to retire. They put his future losses in wages and benefits and retirement earnings at $1,107,236.

The city said Jeffries had a duty to find a similar job after the layoff to mitigate his loss in wages, but that after he failed in two such applications, he didn’t apply for openings in Manteca, Rio Linda, North Highlands and Bay Point near Pittsburg.