Ex-nonprofit worker files $1M suit, accuses Brokaw of discrimination

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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A former Partners in Careers employee has accused the Vancouver nonprofit's executive director of unlawful termination and discriminatory remarks about the employee's Muslim faith and Bosnian accent.

In a civil lawsuit in Clark County Superior Court, former lead job developer Advija Hrustic claims that Executive Director Pam Brokaw's alleged comments that Hrustic was "a person of darkness" and she should "find Jesus in her heart" were part of a work environment characterized by discrimination, fear and ostracization of those who disagreed with Brokaw.

Hrustic asks for $1 million in emotional distress, lost wages, attorney fees and costs. On top of that, she wants $100,000 for her husband's "loss of consortium and peaceful enjoyment and other damage" to their marriage. Her attorney, Peter Fels, could not be reached on Friday.

Brokaw recently gave notice that she'll resign Oct. 31 but says the resignation is "completely unrelated" to the pending litigation. She declined to comment on Hrustic's claim.

Brokaw said she's leaving the organization because she's accepted a full-time position as pastor for the Castle Rock United Methodist Church and the Winlock United Methodist Church.

Sue Vanlaanen, chair of Partners in Careers, also declined to comment on the legal case.

Kelly Olson, attorney for Brokaw and Partners in Careers, was not available Friday.

Vanlaanen also said that Brokaw's resignation was unrelated to the lawsuit.

"The board has a very high level of confidence in Pam and how she has been running PIC," Vanlaanen said. "Her leaving is a loss for the organization."

The board will discuss next week how to fill Brokaw's position.

Hrustic, 47, of Vancouver, is a Muslim survivor of Bosnia's civil war and has post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from her war experiences, according to her claim. She worked for Partners in Careers for 13 years before Brokaw fired her in September 2012 for taking an extended medical leave related to her PTSD.

The lawsuit alleges that a hostile work environment created by Brokaw aggravated Hrustic's PTSD symptoms.

Brokaw joined Partners in Careers as executive director in 2009. Beginning in October 2011, Brokaw fired at least five employees during a six-month period, according to the lawsuit.

Brokaw also allegedly ostracized employees who disagreed with her.

After Hrustic questioned Brokaw's treatment of co-workers, Brokaw stopped acknowledging Hrustic's presence at staff meetings and told other employees not to speak to Hrustic, the lawsuit claims.

In June 2012, Brokaw allegedly confronted Hrustic about why other employees turned to Hrustic to complain about working conditions and ordered her to report names of anyone who complained.

Compared to war

Hrustic said the work environment "reminded her of the conditions she encountered during the Bosnia War, when soldiers and gangs removed people who were then killed or never seen again and people were encouraged to report on their neighbors and family to the government or risk imprisonment and death," according to the lawsuit.

The similarities exacerbated her symptoms of PTSD, the lawsuit says. Hrustic sought medical help and took a medical leave of absence. When she asked for a six-week extension, authorized in a note from her doctor, Brokaw allegedly fired Hrustic.

Partners in Careers offers job training and employment services to help refugees, immigrants, low-income seniors, veterans and at-risk youth find employment. Local, state and federal money supports its operations. The organization has a staff of 12 and serves about 1,000 clients per year.

Brokaw, 60, of Ridgefield, also has had jobs with city and county governments and has been a candidate for county commissioner and the state Legislature.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.