Punitive Damages Awarded to Fired Social Worker “Trial: An activist who raised questions about the Alameda Corridor project had been accused of threatening a co-worker.”

Los Angeles Times
June 10, 2000
Dan Weikel

A Compton Superior Court jury on Friday awarded $175,000 in punitive damages to a social worker who was fired after raising questions during a public hearing about potential conflicts of interest involving the $2.4-billion Alameda Corridor project.

Jurors concluded that Shields for Families, a social service agency and provider of substance abuse treatment, should pay the award to Perry Crouch, 50, on the grounds that Shields wrongly terminated him from his $42,000-a-year post in June 1998.

Crouch, a former program manager, claimed that his employers falsely accused him of threatening to kill a co-worker and then fired him to curry favor with the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority, with which Shields was trying to win a job-training contract.

“I’ve been vindicated” Crouch said. “What they were saying about me was a blatant lie. I couldn’t get another decent job after I was fired. . . . Shields put me through hell.”

Friday’s judgment is in addition to $650,000 in compensatory damages the same jury awarded Crouch after a trial in April. The veteran community activist from Los Angeles also collected a cash payment to settle the lawsuit’s claim against Gill V. Hicks, the general manager of the corridor authority and a co-defendant in the action.

The agency is responsible for building a 20-mile tollway for freight trains between the county’s fast-growing ports and transcontinental rail yards near downtown Los Angeles. Corridor officials have promised to provide job training and employment opportunities for 1,000 low-income people.

Although Hicks is a government official, both sides agreed to a confidential settlement.

Kathryn Icenhower, Shield’s executive director, declined to comment. The agency’s attorneys couldn’t be reached on Friday.

Icenhower told the news media in 1998 that Crouch was suspended for repeatedly speaking at public gatherings without permission and eventually fired for threatening other members of the staff.

However, Crouch’s attorney, David G. Spivak, said that the allegations of threats were groundless, and that Crouch’s firing was calculated to placate Hicks and help Shields win a million-dollar contract to provide job training for women. The agency never received the grant.

Crouch’s problems began on April 16, 1998, when he testified at a state Senate hearing in South Gate about the Alameda Corridor project.

Crouch, a member of the Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition, asked about potential conflicts of interests among engineering firms, bidders for corridor contracts and private attorneys who worked for the authority. Corridor officials, the law firms, and the companies denied any improprieties.

After the speech, witnesses said, Hicks stormed out of the hearing room and berated Crouch for almost 10 minutes. His reaction was so loud that he drew a crowd.

On the court witness stand, Hicks later testified that he had screamed at Crouch. He said he eventually talked to Icenhower on the phone about a job-training grant and mentioned Crouch’s Senate testimony to her. If Crouch made such statements about the corridor again, Hicks recalled telling her, he should consider getting a lawyer.

On April 30, 1998, days after the conversation with Hicks, Shields suspended Crouch for a week without pay. His suspension notice stated that he had been warned in the past about making public statements without permission.

At the end of June 1998, Shields fired Crouch, who had been with the agency 6 1/2 years. During that time, he had won praise from employers and citations from community groups and elected officials. “Threatening staff” was the only reason cited in his termination notice.

Trial testimony, however, raised doubts about the grounds for firing Crouch. One witness said he had told Shields officials that there was no threat, but was told to draft a statement about it anyway.

Evidence indicated that the man Crouch allegedly had threatened to kill was on vacation at the time the threat purportedly was made.

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