Harassment suit shows Port of Seattle willing to spend big on lawyers

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 10:39 PM

Updated Saturday, Nov 23 at 4:49 AM

The Port of Seattle spent more than $1.2 million starting in 2009 to cover legal bills, sanctions, and a settlement payment related to a workplace harassment and racial discrimination suit filed by an employee who had been touted as being a valuable asset to her department and to the Port as a whole.

The Port, which boasts its own six-person legal team, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside law firms for this single case. Still, in the course of contesting the suit, the Port's outside legal team was sanctioned for withholding key evidence, adding another $161,000 to the case's cost, which was ultimately settled in the employee's favor.

In all, the Port spent more than $995,000 on attorney and other legal fees for the suit, including $16,000 for time spent on the case by an in-house attorney; and $26,000 and $790,000, respectively, for work by two outside legal firms.

The figure also includes the $161,000 sanction to reimburse the plaintiff for legal expenses after a judge found Port attorneys failed to disclose some documents that would require another round of depositions and discovery. The documents showed that the woman who allegedly harassed and discriminated against the plaintiff had been the subject of previous workplace complaints involving women of color.

As a public institution funded in part by King County property taxes, the Port of Seattle's management is entrusted with carefully stewarding taxpayer money to manage one of the biggest employers and economic engines in the Puget Sound region.

The Port's handling of this employee harassment case, however, raises doubts about management's priorities in shepherding this vital public institution.

“They continue to hire outside lawyers, spend huge amounts of taxpayer dollars and to defend cases where they just ought to take responsibility and step up and change the way things are,” said Ann Deutscher, one of the plaintiff attorneys in this case.

The lawsuit in question resulted from a complaint by Chrissy Barker-Sales, an employee in the Port's property leasing department. According to court documents, in 2009, Barker-Sales got into an argument with another employee during which the employee allegedly called her a "n***er bitch." A few weeks later, Barker-Sales said the same woman called her a “n***er” as the two passed in a Port hallway.

After Barker-Sales complained, she said her work environment deteriorated. In the last performance review conducted before the incident, Barker-Sales was praised as an "outstanding" employee, a "team player" whose work was of the "highest quality."

But after complaining, she found herself receiving a 30-day warning to improve her performance or potentially be fired.

"I worked so hard to get to the position, I worked extremely hard and it seemed like everything I worked to achieve, just in that moment someone was able to discriminate against me and I'm the bad person," Barker-Sales said.

Port of Seattle officials declined to appear on camera to talk about Barker-Sales' case, but said they stand behind their position that the incident never occurred. Officials also insist that racism is not tolerated at the Port.

“Consistent with its policies and practices, the Port promptly investigated the concerns raised by Ms. Barker-Sales regarding a difficult interaction with a co-worker and found no evidence of harassment. After her initial report and after the Port addressed performance issues with her, Ms. Barker-Sales indicated for the first time that the two incidents of which she complained included the use of an offensive racial slur though she could produce no witnesses to substantiate her claim,” according to a statement submitted to KING 5 by the Port of Seattle.

But Jim Dore, one of the attorneys representing Barker-Sales, questioned the Port's treatment of his client after she made her complaints.

"The HR department tried to bury the evidence ... and took a concerted approach to retaliate against Chrissy for doing the right thing," Dore said, adding, "and when the Port of Seattle allows that and then actively engages in the process to eliminate that person who complains or does the right thing, you go, 'Wow! That is something else.'"

Veteran plaintiff attorney Deutscher said she had never seen any governmental agency spend money in his way.

"They act like the taxpayer dollars are theirs," Deutscher said. "I’ve never seen money spent so glibly. I'm a resident of Seattle; [that] they could spend my tax dollars to defend what is the indefensible in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars is beyond belief."

Port officials said the costs were so high because attempts to settle out of court earlier in the process were unsuccessful.

“As a result, the Port was forced to prepare this matter for trial. The litigation expenses incurred in this case were substantial, but were necessary particularly given the state at which the case was resolved,” wrote officials in the statement.

Barker-Sales was paid $250,000 by the Port to settle her harassment case. But she insisted that the case was not about money.

"I'm not someone looking for a hand out, I'm not asking anyone to give me anything," she said. "I go to work every day. I'm educated. I feel like I can sit at the table with the best of them, no matter what color my skin is."

KING 5 obtained an email written by Port CEO Tay Yoshitani on February 7, 2013 which alerted Port Commissioners that KING was working on a news story about the case.

“We recently settled a discrimination claim that involved a former Port employee.  In the final analysis, it did not turn out well for the Port,” wrote Yoshitani. “We don’t know whether this will become a news story or not, but if it does, I didn’t want you to be blindsided.”
 

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