$1.6 million settlement of age-bias lawsuit to cost Clallam County $100,000 directly

PORT ANGELES — Four former county employees have accepted a $1.6 million settlement with Clallam County, resolving age and disability discrimination claims against County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly and Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols.

The settlement was reached Friday afternoon with the New York excess insurance carrier for the county, in which $1.5 million comes from the insurance pool and the county pays $100,000.

The lawsuit was filed in February 2009 by former Deputy Prosecutor Carol Case, former office Administrator Elaine Sundt, former Deputy Prosecutor Kathy Nielsen and Hollie Hutton, whose mother, Robin Porter, was a former legal assistant who died in January 2008.

According to the complaint filed by Stephanie Bloomfield of the Tacoma law firm Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson & Haheim LLP, Kelly, Nichols and others in the Prosecutor’s Office “treated Plaintiffs and other women in a hostile, demeaning and condescending manner.”

The four plaintiffs and their lawyers had been seeking about $7.5 million, according to Mike Patterson, attorney with the Seattle-based law firm Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes, Leitch & Kalzer Inc., who represented the county.

Bloomfield was not available for comment Saturday.

The settlement came just as the trial was scheduled to begin Monday in Jefferson County Superior Court before visiting Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Karlynn Haberly.

“We were right. We were mistreated,” said Case, who was terminated from ­Clallam County and now considers herself retired after 25 years in prosecutors’ offices.

“This is the suit that the county vowed the plaintiffs would not, could not win,” Case added.

“[The county] would have saved a lot of money that went into the county attorney’s pocket had it been settled three years ago,” she said.

“As it is, the county’s attorney made a fortune off Clallam County taxpayers.”

Kelly, who first took elected office in 2003 and appointed Nichols as chief deputy prosecutor in 2006, said the county was forced to settle at the insurance company’s recommendation.

“This settlement was made by the excess insurance company strictly for economic reasons,” Kelly said in a statement released Saturday.

“The county had no option for going forward on its own, short of hiring its own attorneys and spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

“If Washington were a loser-pays state, this lawsuit would never have been filed.”

Kelly said that “we were fully prepared to take this to court so that we could finally tell our side of the story, but our insurance carrier, for business reasons, determined otherwise.

“While we disagree with the decision and feel confident we would have been vindicated, we understand the insurance company’s economic decision.”

All four former employees were at least 53 when they were terminated or resigned.

They alleged age discrimination and retaliation in the lawsuit.

“Plaintiffs were subjected to intimidation, offensive comments, and/or conduct, a hostile work environment and disparate treatment because of their age,” the lawsuit said.

“Specifically, younger employees were treated more favorably than Plaintiffs in a variety of contexts.”

Patterson refuted the claims of each former employee.

Case, who was 64 when she was terminated, was fired with cause, Patterson said. He noted that Kelly doesn’t need cause to fire a deputy.

“[Case] was creating huge issues in the office and had been for some time,” he said.

The lawsuit alleges that Nielsen, 55, was terminated. Patterson countered that Nielsen resigned with two weeks’ notice because “she knew she had engaged in misconduct” and was going to be disciplined.

Porter, who was 53 when she was fired, “had major issues with regard to using her computer on work time for personal purposes and was warned about that,” Patterson said.

He also said Porter had “a huge problem with absenteeism” and had “significant negative interactions” with co-workers.

Sundt, who was 61 when she was fired, was “totally disorganized” in her role as office manager, Patterson said.

He added that Sundt was terminated because she was derelict in paying bills and submitting the office budget in a timely fashion.

“There absolutely was no age discrimination.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at [email protected]

Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-681-2390 or [email protected]

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