A federal judge has awarded $318,520 to a former Philadelphia School District administrator who jurors said was wrongfully suspended and later fired in retaliation for talking to The Inquirer about a $7.5 million no-bid contract for security cameras.
Judge Juan R. Sanchez ruled Monday that Francis X. Dougherty was entitled to the money to compensate for wages he lost after he was fired from his job as the district's acting chief of operations by the School Reform Commission in April 2011.
The judge entered the judgment against the School District, its former top human resources official, Estelle Matthews, and the estate of Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, who left the district in August 2011 and died in February 2013.
"In every way, Mr. Dougherty is the kind of public servant a city can only hope for," said one of his lawyers, Alice W. Ballard. "He would never have been fired had he not blown the whistle on the School District's wrongdoing. Now the court has awarded him the pay he should have earned for serving the public so well."
It is not clear when Dougherty will see the money.
Joe H. Tucker, whose firm represents the School District defendants, has already appealed the judge's previous rulings in the case.
"This is just the latest in a series of wrong decisions made by this judge," Tucker wrote in response to an e-mail seeking comment. "We anticipated this wrong decision, and that is why we filed the appeal even before he issued this decision. We fully anticipate that the appeals court will correct this obvious mistake."
Following a five-day trial, federal jurors said the district, Ackerman, and Matthews violated Dougherty's First Amendment right to free speech by placing him on leave in December 2010 during an investigation of the source of leaks about the camera project and then recommending that the SRC fire him.
The jury concluded that the district, Ackerman, and Matthews retaliated against Dougherty for telling The Inquirer and state and federal authorities that Ackerman steered the no-bid contract to a small minority-owned firm, IBS Communications Inc., that had not been approved for emergency work.
Dougherty's lawyers contended that Ackerman and her team embarked on a mission to find the source of the leaks after The Inquirer published an article on Nov. 28, 2010, that said she had pushed aside Security & Data Technologies Inc., a Bucks County firm that had begun preliminary work on a rush contract to install surveillance cameras in 19 schools the state had deemed "persistently dangerous."
In his suit and on the stand, Dougherty disclosed that he was a source for that article and several follow-up stories.
The defense maintained that Dougherty lost his job after outside lawyers who conducted an investigation for the district said he had sent an e-mail about the camera project to an unknown third party and improperly sent 50 e-mails from his work account to his personal account.
The jury said that while Dougherty's right to free speech had been violated, the district had not broken Pennsylvania's whistle-blower law, which bars employers from retaliating against employees who allege wrongdoing to legal authorities.
For the First Amendment violation, the jury awarded Dougherty $1 from each of the defendants who had wronged him.
Both the sides agreed that the judge would rule on additional damages.
Sánchez, who had held a two-day hearing in late March and early April, issued his order and memorandum Monday.