Lawyer charged with contempt

Jurors said plaintiff's attorney coached witnesses on stand

By Laura McVicker, Columbian staff writer

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A prominent lawyer faces federal civil contempt charges after he allegedly caused a mistrial in a discrimination lawsuit involving the city of Vancouver.

Thomas Boothe, Portland attorney for Rolando Hernandez, a former Vancouver Fire Department shop employee who sued the city of Vancouver, went to trial on June 11 in U.S. District Court.

Hernandez, who is Hispanic, sued the city for $2.5 million, alleging racial discrimination based on disparate treatment, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

On the fourth day of trial in Tacoma, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ordered a mistrial after two jurors notified the judge that they saw Boothe apparently coaching his witnesses during cross-examination.

The jurors told the judge that Boothe would shake his head, nod and mouth answers when each witness was asked a question, and the witnesses followed his cues, according to court papers filed in federal court.

Leighton said in court papers that he also was alerted to allegations that Boothe may have intimidated a witness, a Vancouver city official, and also may have forged a court document that was presented as evidence at trial.

"This is the first time I've declared a mistrial in 10 years," the judge told jurors, according to a trial transcript. "I don't like the situation, but I have never encountered a situation like this before."

The judge set a civil contempt hearing for Oct. 12. It's unclear what penalties the longtime attorney could face, but sanctions for civil contempt are generally monetary.

It's also too soon to tell how a civil contempt finding could influence Boothe's ability to practice law.

"Depending on the outcome of that, obviously there could be fallout" for Boothe, said Robert Christie, a Seattle attorney representing the city of Vancouver. "It was a very serious proceeding, and that was a very serious order."

Boothe has retained a Seattle attorney, Patrick Rothwell, to represent him. Rothwell said this week: "Mr. Boothe denies the charges asserted in the show-cause motion, and he will address charges at the hearing in October."

According to the court transcript, Booth said that if he was making any physical cues, it was "unintentional" because he has a firm belief in law ethics.

Boothe, a lawyer for 33 years, has handled several high-profile cases in Clark County, mostly civil suits involving public agencies. He won a $1.5 million lawsuit in 2007 for four women who sued Clark County Fire District 5 for sexual harassment.

Boothe also represented former Vancouver Police Department Officer Navin Sharma in one of his three lawsuits related to his employment. Under a different attorney, Sharma was most known for winning a $1.65 settlement racial discrimination lawsuit against the police department in 2008.

Hernandez's discrimination lawsuit against the city remains in limbo. When the judge ordered a mistrial on June 14, he told the attorneys the case is open to be re-tried.

That decision rests with Hernandez, who must hire a new attorney to move forward. Attempts to contact Hernandez, who lives in Alaska, were unsuccessful.

The case has stalled since he filed the lawsuit in 2004. The District Court originally threw the case out in 2006. Following appeals, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in May 2008 and called for a jury trial.

Hernandez worked for the city's Operations Center as a mechanic from 1995 to 1999, when he was promoted to work in the fire department's shop as an emergency equipment mechanic. His suit alleges that when he took up his new position, he received the "cold shoulder" from other employees, was given more menial tasks than his peers and had his tools and at least one vehicle he worked on sabotaged.

The suit also says that Hernandez's supervisor and the city conspired to cover up the discrimination. Hernandez was placed on leave in 2004 after an altercation with another employee in a parking lot, and eventually demoted. He left the city in 2007.

The case has gone through several attorneys over the years. Lawyers have said both sides have been unable to agree on a settlement.

Laura McVicker: http://twitter.com/col_courts; http://facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.