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Originally published Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 6:00 PM

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Ex-court worker's $256,000 award reversed

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a federal jury verdict that awarded a former Seattle Municipal Court employee $256,000 after he was fired by the former presiding judge for fixing parking tickets.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a federal jury verdict that awarded a former Seattle Municipal Court employee $256,000 after he was fired by the former presiding judge for fixing parking tickets.

Bruce Eklund had sued the municipal court in 2006, claiming he was fired after complaining that his supervisors had covered up data he had compiled showing court magistrates were breaking the law — and potentially costing the city millions in revenue — by reducing parking and traffic ticket fines. Named as defendants were Judge Fred Bonner and several other administrators.

After a nine-day trial and two days of deliberations, a jury found last year that Eklund had not been wrongfully fired, but concluded he did not get a fair hearing from Bonner.

The jury awarded Eklund $460,000, although that was reduced by $210,000 by the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly, on a motion by the city.

Eklund appealed, seeking reinstatement of the full verdict. Bonner, who is no longer presiding judge, appealed as well, challenging the jury's conclusion on whether his decision to terminate him was fair.

In a unanimous decision Wednesday, a three-member panel of the appeals court sided with Bonner, and went so far as to say that Zilly shouldn't have let the case go to trial in the first place.

Eklund's attorney, Cleveland Stockmeyer, called the opinion "shocking."

"It's pretty unbelievable when you can have a jury of 12 find that the actions against my client were reckless and malicious, and to have three judges say those same actions were reasonable," he said.

A telephone message left with Assistant City Attorney Amy Lowen was not returned Wednesday.

Eklund was among five municipal- court employees targeted and eventually fired for altering or fixing fines they owed on parking tickets in 2003 and 2004. In his case, a friend at court repeatedly entered the court's computer system to extend deadlines, remove penalty fees and recall collection efforts on six of Eklund's parking tickets.

Eklund said he was unaware of his friends' actions and offered what Judge Bonner said were "suspect" answers to his inquiries. Bonner told him in a letter he could lose his job.

Eklund accused the court of targeting him because he had protested his superiors' efforts to hide from the city's Department of Finance a report Eklund had authored showing that municipal court magistrates had reduced or forgiven $1.5 million in parking and traffic fines over an 18-month period.

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He questioned how Bonner, who was aware of his report and who Eklund claimed was involved in trying to keep the information from the finance department, could give him a fair hearing.

Writing for the panel, 9th Circuit Judge John Noonan acknowledged that Bonner would have had "a regard for the reputation of the institution of which he was the chief judge and administrator. Any judge will have some feeling for the reputation of his court and resent slander upon it."

But, Noonan concluded, a "tough-minded judge, indeed any rational judge, will distinguish between himself and the institution." He said Bonner "was not disqualified" to be the decision maker at Eklund's hearing and said the case should have been dismissed during the district- court proceedings.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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