Los Angeles Zoo Director Warren D. Thomas was ordered reinstated to his job Wednesday by a federal judge who concluded that he was improperly fired in 1986.
"The evidence before this court . . . indicates that Dr. Thomas' accomplishments as zoo director have been considerable," U.S. District Judge William J. Rea said in a 29-page decision, which also awards Thomas an estimated $36,000 in back pay.
The court concluded that the $73,000-a-year executive had a "property interest" in his job, and that Los Angeles city officials violated his constitutional rights to due process when they terminated him without just cause after a series of purported "internal problems" at the zoo.
"The decision is important, not only for Dr. Thomas, but also for many other employees, because it is the first case in the country in which a federal court has held that an exempt city employee has a constitutional right to due process, which means that he cannot be terminated without just cause," said Thomas' attorney, Gloria Allred.
"To say I'm happy would be an understatement," said Thomas, adding that he hopes the decision will mean he can "just go on as normal, doing what I've been doing for the last 13 years, and hopefully better.
"We've made this into a world-class zoo, so the next step is to make it the best zoo in the world."
City officials, citing problems with various animal transactions, Thomas' alleged use of racial epithets around zoo employees and allegations that he took zoo supplies for his own use, had argued that Thomas was fired for cause.
More importantly, the city contended, exempt employees serve "at will" and can be terminated at any time at the discretion of their supervisors.
Officials said they had not decided whether to appeal the ruling.
"We've read the decision, we're evaluating it, discussing it with city officials, and after that evaluation, we will then decide on a course of action," said Frederick N. Merkin, senior assistant city attorney.
Thomas, 57, claimed that he was repeatedly assured when he was hired to direct the zoo that even though he was not a regular Civil Service employee, he would never be fired without just cause and a full hearing.
Cited His Evaluations
He complained in his federal court lawsuit against the city and James Hadaway, general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, that he earned complimentary evaluations and was nominated for a career service award, but ran into trouble with Hadaway years later when a controversy erupted over alleged mishandling of ivory pieces that had been given to the zoo for safekeeping.
Thomas was suspended for five days over the ivory incident but was assured by his supervisors that he would not be fired without cause. Then, in May, 1986, Thomas was notified that a hearing would be held, and after the hearing the city proposed to terminate him.
Judge Rea, relying on the findings of an independent panel appointed by the court that Thomas was improperly terminated, issued a preliminary injunction last December temporarily reinstating him to his job.
In Wednesday's decision, Judge Rea made the reinstatement permanent and said the city "failed to make any convincing argument" that Thomas was unreasonable in relying on representations that he would not be fired without just cause.
"Dr. Thomas' understanding of his employment status was not the result of a unilateral subjective belief, but rather an understanding reached through mutual conversations with persons who seemingly had the authority to make such representations," the court said.
"If the defendants wanted to enforce Dr. Thomas' exempt status, they could have provided him with an express agreement describing his employment and the lack of any job security."
Judge Rea ruled that Hadaway "had a strong personal dislike for Thomas" and had threatened to fire him on several occasions, but the court also ruled that Hadaway as a city employee is exempt from being held personally liable for any damages.
The judge refused to award Thomas any compensatory damages beyond the back pay. Allred said she had not decided whether to appeal that portion of the decision, but said she would ask the court to award Thomas the attorneys fees in the case.
"We're very happy with this victory," she said. "Dr. Thomas has been vindicated . . . and I'm sure there are many city employees who were watching this."