West Palm still fighting verdict that police wrongly fired Iraq vet

2:18 p.m Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 Politics
Matthew Ladd, in court during his civil trial against the city of West Palm Beach Aug. 21, 2013. Ladd, a former West Palm Beach police officer, sued the city, claiming the department wrongly fired him for having a disability, whereas the city claimed he lied about his condition before he was hired. (Bill Ingram/Palm Beach Post)

Four years after a Palm Beach County jury ordered West Palm Beach to pay Matthew Ladd nearly $900,000 for improperly firing him as a police officer because they believed he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, the Iraq War veteran has yet to collect all of the money the jury said he deserves.

And city officials are making it increasingly clear that if they have their way, he never will.

In an unusual move, city officials went back to court last month to try to persuade a judge that the 32-year-old West Palm Beach native committed a fraud upon the court by lying about his mental ills. After listening to four days of testimony, County Court Judge Edward Garrison rejected the city’s claims, saying simply that it “had failed to meet its burden of proof.”

Attorney Isidro “Sid” Garcia, who represents Ladd, calls the convoluted case “the most over-litigated case in any life.”

Besides unsuccessfully challenging the $880,000 jury verdict, the city is appealing a judge’s decision ordering it to pay Ladd an additional $100,000 to cover the amount he would have earned had he not been improperly fired in 2010. The case also spawned an unsuccessful federal lawsuit.

City Communications Director Kathleen Walter said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

But Garcia said city officials have ordered a transcript of the trial, a signal that they are planning to appeal Garrison’s decision.

“This is insane,” he said of the city’s tough stance against Ladd, who spent eight years in the U.S. Army, serving tours in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

City records show the city has spent more than $300,000 in its legal battle with Ladd. The amount it has paid outside attorney Don Stephens along with hiring experts and paying other court costs is more than the amount Ladd said he agreed to take years ago to settle the litigation so both he and the city could move on.

“I guess they are trying to wear me out,” said Ladd, who abandoned his dreams of becoming a police officer and is now taking a 13-month course to be a surgical technician. “But I’ve done this for seven years and I’m not going to give up now.”

Like many cases that spin out of control, the facts aren’t clear-cut.

Ladd was fired nine months into his yearlong probationary period after several police officers reported he was acting strange. Knowing that he served in Iraq and Afghanistan, rumors began surfacing that he suffered from PTSD, Garcia said.

The proverbial straw came when paramedics were called to his house when Ladd suffered what Garcia called an allergy attack. A neighbor, who called 911, cursed at a dispatcher when emergency crews were delayed. Thinking Ladd had berated the dispatcher, his superiors ordered him to undergo a psychological evaluation.

While a psychiatrist declared him fit for duty, Ladd was fired a week later. He said he was told it was because he had PTSD and a memo written by a higher up backed up those claims, Garcia said.

Calling other officers to testify that they, too, have PTSD, Garcia in 2013 persuaded the jury that the malady is a disability and can’t be used as grounds to fire someone. Dr. Norman Silversmith, who cleared Ladd to return to duty, testified that PTSD is treatable.

When city officials returned to court in October, they told Garrison that they scoured the country turning up evidence that Ladd had been diagnosed with the malady before he applied for a job as a police officer and lied about it.

“The city was in essence duped,” Stephens said.

During the recent trial, an emergency room physician at St. Mary’s Medical Center, who treated Ladd for shortness of breath before he was fired in 2010, testified that Ladd told her he was taking experimental drugs for PTSD. His father, retired police officer Lawrence Ladd, testified that he recalled his son telling him in 2007 that he had PTSD.

But Garcia said that while the term PTSD might have been in Ladd’s health records, he never received an official diagnosis from the Veteran’s Administration until 2012 — two years after he was fired by the city. When the diagnosis was made, the VA made his benefits retroactive to 2010.

The problem with the city’s fraud case against Ladd was that much of the testimony came out during the first trial in 2013, Ladd’s lawyer said. The jury was aware of the disagreement about exactly when Ladd was diagnosed with PTSD and still agreed that they city fired him improperly.

The city’s lawyer told Garrison the city simply wanted to right a wrong. Stephens initially asked Garrison to order Ladd to repay the $100,000 it had already paid him, but the judge made it clear that wasn’t an option.

Stephens then said a favorable ruling from Garrison could be used to block Ladd from getting the remaining money.

Under Florida law that existed in 2010, the city is only obligated to pay Ladd $100,000. To get the remaining money, Ladd would have to successfully persuade the Florida Legislature to pass what is known as a claims bill, lifting the $100,000 cap. That cap has since been raised to $200,000, although the new cap does not apply to Ladd’s case.

“The city is not being petty,” said Stephens told Garrison, explaining why the city filed the unusual lawsuit. “If there’s fraud and he lied about all this stuff, he doesn’t deserve a claims bill.”

Even without a favorable ruling from Garrison, Garcia acknowledged that persuading state lawmakers to approve a claims bill won’t be easy. Still, he said, he has lined up a lawyer to shepherd a measure through the Legislature.

As for Ladd, he said he would like to move from West Palm Beach and start his life over with his wife and son.

“I want to move out of state,” he said. “But I can’t do that because every time I think about it, they file something else. I’m just so upset that they are allowing this to continue to go on.”