'They got caught:' Former Ada Co. employee hopes lawsuit win sends a message

Rich Wright talks about winning his lawsuit against the county.

BOISE -- A local man's four-year battle to prove he was illegally fired by Ada County paid off this week, when a jury awarded him $1.7 million for wrongful termination.

Rich Wright said Thursday the decision was vindication that the fight had been worth it.

"What happened to me shouldn't happen to anybody, whether you're a public employee or a private employee," he said. "Retaliation should not occur in the workplace."

Wright lost his job as Director of the Department of Administration in January 2013. Ada County has said the position was eliminated as part of normal department restructuring.

But Wright maintained he was targeted for launching investigations into another county employee accused of misconduct, a woman who was close friends with two of the county commissioners. He says Commissioners Jim Tibbs and Dave Case ousted him in retaliation just one day after after being sworn in.

The jury agreed, needing just a few hours to deliberate Tuesday before returning a unanimous verdict.

"They got caught. They got caught doing something illegal and they tried their darndest to cover it up," Wright said. "I'm just happy that in this case the truth prevailed, that people came forward, that my hard work paid off, and I hope they don't every try to do it again."

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Ada County still has several weeks to decide whether to appeal the decision. County spokeswoman Kate McGwire did not respond to phone calls and an email requesting comment. During KTVB's in-person visit to the commissioners' offices Thursday, she asked another employee to tell reporters she was unavailable.

Tibbs and Case also did not respond to requests for comment.

Wright said he hopes the case encourages other workers in Idaho to do their research and stand up for their rights. Although Idaho is an at-will employment state - meaning employers can fire workers at any time without a reason - the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act shields employees who report wrongdoing from retaliation.

"Had I just rolled over and accepted the fact that they just kicked me out the door for an illegal reason, I don't think that we would have been able to send that message to other employees in my situation," Wright said.

The loss of his job was more than a professional heartbreak, he said.

"My career was my life. Sunup to sundown, that was what I did," he said. "That was my vehicle to not only make a living for the day, but also for my retirement, and in that process, I had super close relationships with the people that I worked with."

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Wright said he was looking forward to continuing at his current job in St. Luke's IT department, as well as rekindling friendships with his former coworkers, many of whom who stopped talking to while the legal battle was going on for fear the communication would get them in trouble.

Ada County is self-insured, meaning there is not an insurance company to swoop in and pay Wright's $1.7 million award. Instead, the county will have to draw from a pool of several million dollars set aside in their risk management department, said Wright, who oversaw risk management his previous role.

Attorney Eric Rossman said the county will almost certainly be on the hook for Wright's legal fees, as well as their own, likely pushing the total bill closer to $2.5 million.

If Ada County does try to appeal the decision, Wright and Rossman say they're ready to return to the courtroom.

"We'll be there. We're not giving up," Wright said. "We'll continue to see this thing through, all the way to the bitter end."

Copyright 2017 KTVB


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