A black former jail employee who filed a lawsuit against Clark County alleging racial discrimination was awarded $500,000 in a jury trial Friday — $100,000 more than he had sought.
The Clark County Superior Court jury awarded the damages to Britt Easterly, one of three African-American men who filed the lawsuit against the county in 2009.
Easterly, former jail commander Clifford Evelyn and Elzy Patrick Edwards, a job applicant who was denied employment, alleged a pattern of racial discrimination by jail managers and officers.
All three alleged “systemic and systematic disregard for the well-being of and fair treatment of the county’s African-American employees and applications for employment.”
Easterly, who now resides in Virginia, was a custody officer from 2003 until he left the Clark County Sheriff’s Office in 2009 after being passed over for a promotion.
Evelyn and Edwards’ claims are tied up in the Washington Court of Appeals, so the trial proceeded only with Easterly.
The two-week trial concluded Thursday evening, and jurors returned Friday morning to deliberate, unanimously reaching a decision in less than two hours. When asked about the damages, only one juror didn’t vote for the $500,000 amount. Under Washington law, only 10 of 12 jurors must agree in civil cases.
Easterly declined to comment after the verdict.
“It was obviously a racist and hostile work environment,” presiding juror Kathleen Dunn said after the verdict.
Another juror, Rhonda Murphy, said that jurors spent the majority of time going back and forth on the amount of damages to award Easterly; the base point was the $400,000 he requested.
“We wanted to make a point,” she said. “There’s very much a pattern of racism. And the fear of losing your job if you report it needs to stop.”
She said she believes the sheriff’s office needs to mandate more anti-discrimination training and require employees to prove the training was taken during annual reviews. The training should not be online but instead held in classrooms by departments, Murphy added.
An attitude adjustment starting with top management is also needed, said another juror, Pam Bailey.
In a written statement, the county’s lead attorney, Mitchell Cogen of Bullard Law in Portland, said, “We appreciate the jury’s service, but we are obviously disappointed with the verdict. The sheriff’s office and the county have been and remain committed to a workplace from discrimination.
“In light of the verdict, we are considering all available options.”
During the trial, Easterly’s Portland attorney, Thomas Boothe, raised several instances in which his client believes racism affected his work environment, in addition to being passed over for the promotion.
Easterly claimed he was denied training opportunities and that jail staff did little to deter inmates from using racial slurs. In 2006, Easterly was investigated by the major crimes team after a male inmate alleged sexual assault. Easterly said he didn’t receive sufficient information about the investigation, which later found the inmate made up the claims. Easterly was cleared of wrongdoing.
Then, in January 2008, Easterly discovered photos posted on doors in the jail depicting a large African-American man wearing a grass skirt, feathered headdress and dancing. The words, “871 on vacation?” were written on the top — his officer-assigned number.
The officer who posted the photo was disciplined.
However, when Easterly brought all of his concerns to human resources, it was later determined they were unfounded.
“The (sheriff’s office) has had a racial, hostile work environment for decades,” Boothe told the jury during closing arguments Thursday. “This case is a complete systems failure of the sheriff’s office.”
Cogen argued in his closing statements there was no evidence that race played a factor in most of the incidents Easterly identified. And many of the alleged racial incidents jurors heard from witnesses, including testimony from Evelyn, had nothing to do with Easterly, Cogen said.
He argued that Easterly wanted to be awarded money for incidents that allegedly happened to other people. Some, he added, dated back nearly a decade before Easterly even joined the sheriff’s office.
“(Easterly) worked in a jail. By definition, it’s filled with people who can’t abide by socially acceptable norms,” Cogen said. “He knew that. He wants you to believe all of these people are motivated by his race.”
Cogen told the jury that most of Easterly’s case was built on hypotheticals and theories. Only the photo incident and slurs from the inmates had anything to do with race, and both issues were addressed by jail administration, he said.
As far as Easterly being passed over for the promotion, Cogen pointed out that Evelyn, who’s also a black man, was promoted right away.
More to come?
After the verdict was reached Friday, Cogen moved to have the judgment dismissed, arguing there was no factual evidence of racism.
Judge Robert Lewis denied the motion.
It’s unclear when Evelyn and Edwards’ claims will return to Superior Court.
Evelyn was employed as a commander for the custody branch of the sheriff’s office for nearly 20 years, until he was fired in June 2009. Evelyn and employees of the jail’s then-medical service provider, Wexford Sources, Inc., began trading accusations in 2008, as he pushed superiors to evaluate the medical contractor’s work. Charges against Evelyn, some sexual in nature, by Wexford employees and others led to his termination — around the same time the county released a study of Wexford’s failings.
In his portion of the suit, Evelyn claimed that the county subjected him to a hostile work environment and treated him disparately because of his race.
Elzy Patrick Edwards applied to be a custody officer at the jail in October 2007, and according to the complaint, ranked 12th on the eligibility list after completing a physical fitness test and written and oral exams. Edwards said he was later subjected to a “four-hour long, unnecessarily lengthy, unprofessional and abusive background interview” on Jan. 21, 2008, in which the interviewer delved into his personal life. He filed a complaint with the Civil Service Commission and county human resource officials. Edwards was ultimately not hired.
When Edwards filed his portion of the suit, he claimed that the county, in its hiring practices, had discriminated against him based on his race.
Judge Lewis in May 2014 granted the county’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing Evelyn and Edwards’ claims on the grounds it is unclear whether their race played a substantial factor.
The men, who are also represented by Boothe, appealed the decision. A state appeals court in June reversed Edwards’ dismissal and reversed a portion of Evelyn’s dismissal.