Employee sues top Clallam prosecutor, alleging sexual harassment

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols has been sued by an office manager who claims that she was sexually harassed for two years.

Tina Hendrickson filed a complaint and demand for jury trial June 1 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Tacoma.

In her lawsuit, Hendrickson said she was denied a raise because she had rejected Nichols’ “romantic and sexual overtures” between April 2015 and April 2017.

Nichols said he had not seen the complaint when reached by phone Wednesday. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Clallam County Human Resources Director Rich Sill issued a prepared statement Thursday, saying the county hired an independent investigator when the allegations surfaced in early April.

Hendrickson was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, which resulted in a report in late May, Sill said.

“The investigator determined that Mr. Nichols’ conduct that was substantiated did not constitute harassment or retaliation under the county’s policy,” Sill said.

“The allegations in Ms. Hendrickson’s complaint are inconsistent with the information she provided to the investigator.”

Nichols was served with the lawsuit at 1:28 p.m. Wednesday, according to the declaration of service.

The six-page complaint was filed by Gig Harbor attorney Terry Venneberg.

In it, Hendrickson alleges that Nichols engaged in sexually harassing conduct and is seeking unspecified damages.

Nichols was elected prosecuting attorney in November 2014. Hendrickson became office manager later that month.

The two had worked together when Nichols was chief deputy in the prosecuting attorney’s office.

“Upon learning of difficulties that plaintiff Hendrickson was having in her marriage, defendant Nichols started spending considerable time — from three to six hours per day — in plaintiff Hendrickson’s office,” the complaint says.

“During this time in plaintiff Hendrickson’s office, defendant Nichols made romantic and sexual overtures towards plaintiff Hendrickson, regularly telling plaintiff Hendrickson that he was deeply in love with her, that he fantasized about her sexually, that he and his family were wealthy, and that he could take care of her and her children.”

Hendrickson claimed that Nichols would not let her leave her office until she had given him a hug.

She alleged that Nichols would leave phone messages with her and would become angry when the messages were not returned.

Hendrickson said Nichols continued to make romantic and sexual overtures toward her despite her clear and consistent statements that she was not interested in a romantic or sexual relationship.

The frequency and intensity of Nichols’ sexually harassing conduct varied over two years, according to the complaint, “making plaintiff Hendrickson believe on numerous occasions that her rejection of those overtures had been effective, only to have defendant Nichols renew those overtures again.”

“In January 2017, after plaintiff Hendrickson had made clear on repeated occasions to defendant Nichols that she was not interested in pursuing a romantic or sexual relationship with him, and that his romantic and sexual overtures were unwelcome, defendant Nichols decided that plaintiff Hendrickson should not receive a raise in her pay, while the other managers in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office were given raises in their pay,” the lawsuit said.

“The failure to grant plaintiff Hendrickson a raise in her pay was part of the effort by defendant Nichols to pressure plaintiff Hendrickson to become romantically or sexually involved with him.”

Hendrickson submitted a complaint about Nichols’ alleged misconduct to the Clallam County Human Resources department in April.

She alleged that the county “failed to take appropriate remedial action” and placed her on indefinite unpaid leave for not returning to work, where she would “continue to be exposed to contact with defendant Nichols.”

Sill said Hendrickson was placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation so that she would not have to work with Nichols.

“The investigator found there was a long-standing friendship between Ms. Hendrickson and Mr. Nichols that predated her employment, that not all the conduct she alleged was substantiated, and that Ms. Hendrickson never informed Mr. Nichols his conduct made her uncomfortable or asked him to stop,” Sill said.

During the investigation, Hendrickson said she would be comfortable working with Nichols professionally and said she wanted to return to her job as office manager, according to Sill’s statement.

“She agreed it made sense to restructure her reporting relationship so that another manager would directly supervise her,” Sill said.

“With the full cooperation and support of Mr. Nichols, the county arranged for her to report to one of the deputy prosecuting attorneys, a change Ms. Hendrickson indicated was acceptable.”

Sill said the county took other steps to ensure that Hendrickson would not be subject to unnecessary contact from Nichols and had “expressed its willingness to consider any other proposals she might offer regarding how to structure her work situation.”

“Despite those actions, and without identifying any additional steps she believes are necessary, Ms. Hendrickson has thus far refused the county’s invitation to return to work,” Sill said.

“The county is disappointed in Ms. Hendrickson’s decision to pursue litigation without pursuing the avenues available to her to address any ongoing concerns she may have.”

Nichols has three weeks to respond to Hendrickson’s lawsuit in court.

Nichols, a Seattle native and longtime Clallam County resident, was appointed chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney in 2006.

In 2012, Clallam County paid a $1.6 million settlement to resolve an age and disability discrimination lawsuit that four former employees filed against Nichols and former Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly.

The 2009 lawsuit alleged that Nichols and others in the office treated the plaintiffs and other women in a “hostile, demeaning and condescending manner.”

Nichols and Kelly denied any wrongdoing.

An insurance pool paid $1.5 million of the 2012 settlement. The county covered the remaining $100,000.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.