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City loses second forced retirement case

A judge's ruling could cost St. Petersburg $275,000. The city said it would be bound by what happened in the first case.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- John Womer and Buddy San Marco were high-ranking police officials who, against their wishes, were forced to retire.

Both men felt wronged and sued St. Petersburg. San Marco sued first, so his case was further along in the courts. City officials, confident of victory, agreed to pay Womer if San Marco won.

San Marco was awarded half a million dollars.

Now, a circuit judge says the city must compensate Womer -- a ruling that could cost St. Petersburg about $275,000.

With a new police chief on the way, the courts are ending one of the last remaining legal disputes involving the current police chief. Womer's case dates back to 1998.

"It really is high time to put this stuff away so that the new chief coming on does not have to deal with these old disputes. Wouldn't you like to give the guy a fresh start?" said Michael Keane, the lawyer representing both Womer and San Marco.

Womer was a police major in charge of patrol officers in the western third of the city. Police Chief Goliath Davis III forced Womer to quit in May 1998, contending that Womer threatened him.

Womer denied making threats, but it didn't matter. Majors are not covered under the city's civil service rules and typically can be fired without cause. But Womer sued, saying a provision in his pension plan should have protected his job.

It was the same legal argument used by San Marco, a former assistant police chief who was forced out in 1997. In his lawsuit, San Marco also claimed age discrimination.

Two years ago, an assistant city attorney named Rob Eschenfelder summed up the city's point of view: "Both cases have no merit. Both cases will fail."

Wrong.

San Marco won about $507,000 in damages and legal fees from the city. In Womer's case, the city had stipulated that it would be bound by whatever happened in San Marco's case.

"The city recognized the issues in Buddy's case were virtually identical to the issues in John Womer's case," Keane said. "Now we have to get our heads together on what the damages are."

Womer and the city have not agreed on a monetary amount. Keane said $275,000 would cover Womer's lost wages and retirement money he would have accumulated in his pension plan.

"That number may be adjusted somewhat, but that's in the ballpark," Keane said.

After he "retired," Womer worked as a court bailiff and now is an investigator for the Florida Department of Insurance.

Womer couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

But in his view, any legal victory would be bittersweet. He never wanted to leave the Police Department.

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