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County prevails in discrimination lawsuit
Kitsap County has prevailed in a $20 million discrimination lawsuit and was cleared of all charges in a federal trial in Tacoma on Tuesday.
“We think this decision was fair,” said Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney Russell Hauge. “We have been working on this for a long time.”
The lawsuit was filed by former Public Works employee David Smith and his wife, Maureen Smith, alleging violations of the Federal Civil Rights Act and the Washington State Law Against Discrimination.
Since the suit was filed, the county has needed to cut costs, but Hauge said the county is not less equipped to battle such lawsuits in the future. Even so, any future such actions will have a greater impact.
At the time this suit was filed, the county was liable to pay the first $100,000 of their defense, with insurance picking up the rest.
Today, its policy carries a $500,000 deductible.
In the lawsuit, Smith claimed his discharge was illegal and that he had been the victim of retaliation by officials at the county.
He claimed he had given testimony in two other lawsuits against the county alleging employment discrimination.
Hauge and Chief Civil Deputy Jacquelyn Aufderheide were named in the suit, so the county hired an outside firm for the courtroom defense, while the county did much of the legal research in order to save money.
Hauge said that “anyone can sue anyone,” but hoped the verdict would discourage others from filing specious lawsuits.
“Not that this suit was specious,” Hauge said, “but we hope this will deter others from filing suits without merit.”
Smith claimed that he had been threatened by Public Works Director Randy Casteel and Assistant Public Works Director Jon Brand and encouraged to lie in those lawsuits.
He claimed he was fired in retaliation for giving his testimony.
In order to prove his case, Smith made several tape recordings without the knowledge of those he was recording, which is a violation of Washington state Law.
His reason for doing so was to gather evidence of county wrongdoing, but the illegal taping hurt his case, according to Aufderheide.
The prosecutor regularly trains county employees about appropriate behavior in a variety of areas, including when it is legal to tape conversations. In these sessions, county employees learn that no conversation can be taped unless all those present give their explicit permission.
Aufderheide said Smith had participated in several role-playing exercises where this material was learned, and should have known that his behavior was illegal.
A statement issued by the county after the verdict reads, “As a senior-level manager, Smith held a position of public trust and confidence. He was secretly recording people at work, and even citizens in their living rooms. That is gross misconduct and the county had no choice but to fire him.
“The investigation eventually disclosed that Smith had kept almost 100 hours of recordings,” the statement continued. “He recorded conversations on the telephone, interactions with public citizens and even co-workers using the restroom.”
Trial began on Nov. 19 after two years of pretrial litigation. It concluded on Tuesday, when a jury unanimously ruled the county and its officials had not violated any state or federal laws and had not committed any improper acts of illegal discrimination.
Hauge said training is conducted regularly in order to make sure all employees know the law with regard to records and interaction with the public and each other.
Such training is ongoing, and advises employees to take responsibility if they commit an improper or illegal act.
According to Hauge, the county could choose to settle a lawsuit for a smaller amount than projected legal fees, but such an action could damage employee morale.
So in many cases, a settlement is not acceptable.
“The most important thing is the morale and safety of the workers,” Hauge said. “In this case, our principles were at stake, and we did the right thing.”