City hit with $1.2 million discrimination verdict

Federal jury finds for former Vancouver mechanic

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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A former Vancouver city employee was awarded $1.2 million Tuesday from a federal jury, which determined he was subjected to discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.

Rolando Hernandez, 58, worked for the city's Operations Center as a mechanic from 1995 to 1999, when he was promoted to work in the Fire Shop as an Emergency Equipment Mechanic, according to court documents.

Upon his arrival, 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, according to court documents. In an affidavit, he described how he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

Vancouver City Attorney Ted Gathe issued a statement Tuesday following the verdict, which was reached in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

"The city has a no-tolerance policy for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace. A jury unanimously agreed with Mr. Hernandez that this work place, in the time frame of this lawsuit, did not meet that policy," Gathe wrote. "We respect the outcome of this trial and appreciate the work of the jurors that devoted their time to this process."

He said the city wishes the best for Hernandez, who left the city in 2007 for a job in California.

"Like us, Mr. Hernandez is likely relieved to have this part of the process behind him," Gathe wrote.

Gathe said the city will consult with its insurance company before deciding whether to appeal, as the jury award will be covered by insurance.

Hernandez's supervisor, Mark Tanninen, was also a defendant in the case. Tanninen no longer works for the city, but his departure was not related to the Hernandez case, Gathe said.

According to a copy of the jury verdict, the jury found that the Mexican-born Hernandez, whose family moved to the United States when Hernandez was a baby, was subjected to a hostile work environment and harassed because of his race. But the jury did not agree that Tanninen conspired with then-Deputy Fire Chief Steven Streissguth to cover up the discrimination.

Hernandez, according to court documents, was placed on leave in December 2004 after an altercation with an employee in a parking lot. Following administrative leave, he was demoted back to the Operations Department.

While assigned to the Fire Shop, according to the court documents, he sought counseling and was prescribed medications to help with depression and anxiety.

'I was alone'

In 2002, according to an affidavit, "The doctor diagnosed me as having a major depressive order. By this time, I was becoming frequently tearful. I have been having nightmares, and night sweats. I had almost no energy. I was experiencing nausea, shaking and vomiting. When I tried to go near the Fire Shop, I would get so nervous that I would begin sweating. On more than one occasion, I threw up when I had to work. I was going into the shop knowing that whatever I did, I would be told that it was wrong. I also knew I was alone and there was no one there I could turn to."

When he reported that his tools had been vandalized, "the whole world fell in on me," he wrote in the affidavit.

"It was as if once I said there was a possibility it was racial, they were trying to get rid of me. I had been criticized for things when I had done what I was told, and even work that I corrected on the spot as I saw other mechanics do on so many occasions was becoming the source of criticism," he wrote in the affidavit.

Unless the city appeals, Tuesday's verdict ends a convoluted court history.

The lawsuit was filed in 2004. In 2006, the city was granted summary judgment and the case was dismissed.

Hernandez's attorney, Thomas Boothe of Portland, successfully appealed the dismissal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ordered it to trial. The first trial was declared a mistrial after Boothe was found in contempt of court for coaching witnesses; Boothe was later fined.

Gathe said another reason the case took so long to resolve was that it made a second trip to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to settle pre-trial issues.

After the death of the initial judge, a second judge heard the first trial but then recused himself after finding Boothe in contempt.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle presided over the second trial, which began April 15.

Boothe did not immediately return a call seeking comment, and Hernandez could not be reached.