County settles another lawsuit, this one for $750K

EVERETT — Snohomish County has agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation against three women who work at the Denney Juvenile Justice Center.

That comes on top of about $480,000 the county already spent to investigate personnel problems at the juvenile lockup. That cost includes overtime to cover shifts while employees sat for lengthy interviews.

The County Council authorized an agreement on Wednesday to end the case. Under the terms, the women, who all work as juvenile custody officers, will split the payout with their attorney.

“My clients certainly feel vindicated through the process,” said Robin Williams Phillips, the Seattle attorney representing the employees. “We are hopeful that this process has allowed Denney to initiate some basic changes in the way they administrate the facility. I hope that the new management will follow through.”

Phillips was referring to management changes at Snohomish County Superior Court, which oversees Denney. That includes Marilyn Finsen taking over as Superior Court administrator for Bob Terwilliger, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Phillips filed the lawsuit in April on behalf of Dee Thayer, Barbara Lucken and Karen Hastings. All have worked at Denney since the late 1990s. They want to keep working there, if problems are addressed.

“My clients are looking forward to being productive employees,” Phillips said. “They enjoy working for the county.”

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs said “managers, supervisors and certain co-workers … created an atmosphere such that women would feel threatened and harassed.”

They leveled specific allegations against Everett City Councilman Ron Gipson, who had worked as a juvenile corrections officer since 1996. They accused Gipson of making rude and obscene gestures at women while at work. They accused Gipson and other male employees of touching female coworkers inappropriately. Those who complained said they endured retaliation.

The women’s lawsuit stated that Gipson “threatened the physical well-being of plaintiffs” if they reported “his offensive and demeaning conduct.”

Gipson has denied the misconduct. He’s been on paid administrative leave since February.

He’s the only employee on leave in connection with the case, Terwilliger said.

Inappropriate treatment of female employees has persisted at Denney for years, Phillips has said.

The attorney represented three other female Denney employees in a 2004 lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination and retaliation by male co-workers. The county settled that case in 2006 for $500,000, split three ways.

Managers are confronting myriad complaints of bias among Denney corrections officers — in addition to sexual harassment.

In February, Gipson and two Denney supervisors lodged a formal complaint, claiming they were being subjected to racist treatment at work. All three men are black.

The county has authorized a massive internal investigation to sort out the accusations. They hired Mill Creek attorney Marcella Fleming Reed to do the work.

On Wednesday, the County Council voted to increase Reed’s contract by $40,000, bringing the total so far to $390,000.

To vet what people are saying, Reed and her staff have interviewed just about everyone who works at Denney.

Investigators have identified 13 separate complaints accusing 21 co-workers of misconduct, county human resources director Bridget Clawson said. They’ve talked to 76 witnesses and performed 171 interviews.

The investigation has driven up labor costs as employees cover shifts for co-workers who are being interviewed or are on administrative leave. This year’s overtime expenses at Denney exceed $89,000, said Karen Gahm, budget and fiscal manager for Superior Court.

Investigators are working on 12 separate reports totaling about 800 pages, not counting numerous exhibits, Clawson said. The county expects the reports to be complete in early 2015.

When ready, the findings should help identify ways to better run the facility and additional worker training, Terwilliger said.

“On an individual basis, there’s a likelihood that we may pursue some disciplinary action against some of the individuals named in this report,” he said.

Any disciplinary action must comply with the terms of union contracts, which spell out due-process employment rights.

Snohomish County has paid an unprecedented amount of legal settlements in 2014. Before the Denney settlement, the total was approaching $3.9 million to resolve suits over car crashes, a jail death and public records disputes, among others.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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