Jury awards $1 million to former Edmonds HR director

SEATTLE — A federal jury awarded Edmonds’ former human resources director $1 million in damages Friday, finding that she was fired wrongfully and defamed by the mayor at the time.

Debi Humann had worked for the city more than a dozen years before being forced out in the fall of 2011. Her lawsuit named former Mayor Mike Cooper as a defendant, in addition to the city.

“I got fired illegally for doing my job,” Humann said Saturday.

Humann maintained that Cooper sent her packing just days after she told him she was cooperating with a state audit of his executive assistant’s timesheeets. She and other city employees doubted that Kimberly Cole actually worked the number of hours reported. Cooper had signed off on the time sheets.

After Humann’s termination, Cooper made statements to the news media about how his trust in her had deteriorated. One read, in part, that he “no longer had confidence in her ability to do the job and work effectively with me.”

Humann soon filed a whistleblower complaint challenging her termination and seeking her job back.

Cooper was campaigning at the time to keep the mayor’s job, but lost in a blowout that November. Dave Earling, the current mayor, took nearly 65 percent of the vote.

Cooper, a former Democratic County Councilman and state House member, had been appointed mayor of Edmonds in 2010. He’s now the director of the Mountlake Terrace Senior Center.

Reached Sunday, Cooper said he wasn’t ready to comment on the case.

Almost immediately upon taking office, Earling fired Cole from her $79,000-per-year job. The new mayor also hired Humann back, but she was laid off two weeks later because the City Council had cut the HR director’s job from the budget.

Cole’s work troubles weren’t limited to Edmonds. She was kicked off the Lynnwood City Council in 2012 for attendance problems. Questions about poor attendance also had dogged her at the County Council where she worked as Cooper’s legislative aide before going to work for him in Edmonds.

Cole now lives in New Jersey and appeared at the trial remotely by video, according to coverage on the My Edmonds News website.

Humann filed her federal lawsuit in January 2013. The trial took place in downtown Seattle and stretched over three weeks. Witnesses included a who’s who of Edmonds politics, including Earling, former Mayor Gary Haakenson, council members and top-level city employees.

A judge threw out two of Humann’s claims, but kept four others.

The jury began deliberations Friday morning and delivered their verdict that afternoon. Damages of $1,035,351 were for a combination of back pay, future economic damages, impairment to her reputation and emotional distress from defamation.

Earling said the city was “disappointed in the outcome.”

“It’s simply time to put this issue behind us and get back to running the city,” he said.

Jayne Freeman, a defense attorney for the city, said they had yet to decide whether to appeal.

While they didn’t win the case, Freeman said they did convince the judge to throw out claims alleging violations of due process and Humann’s civil rights. Nevertheless, those claims ended up prolonging the trial, she said.

“This case has always really been an unemployment case,” Freeman said. “It always was and should have been about her (Humann’s) termination.”

Humann was represented by Seattle attorneys Beth Barrett Bloom and Jillian M. Cutler.

“Debi Humann is exactly the kind of government employee we want guarding our taxpayer dollars,” Bloom said in a statement. “She did the right thing at great personal cost.”

Humann, on Saturday, said she felt relieved. She hoped the verdict would reassure other city employees.

“I had heard from a number of people after I was fired that nobody was going to step up if they had to report something for fear they would be fired,” she said.

Humann grew up in Edmonds and still lives there. As a human resources director named Humann, she was once featured in a Daily Herald series about aptonyms, or names that aptly suit their owners.

Until her ouster, she said, the working atmosphere at the city, mostly under former mayor Haakenson, had been one of respect between management and staff.

“The employees were valuable, the city listened to them and we reacted appropriately,” she said. “That was the culture.”

She said hopes that culture has been restored.

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

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