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Larch employee sues Department of Corrections

Counselor alleges discrimination, hostile workplace

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:

A Vancouver man who’s worked at Larch Corrections Center for nearly 20 years is suing the Washington Department of Corrections, alleging racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Clark County Superior Court, claims that 57-year-old Sidney Clark, a corrections counselor, has been passed up for numerous training and promotion opportunities, and he remains concerned about losing his job amid health problems caused by mistreatment.

Clark, who is black, says he’s been targeted by Larch staff for more than three years, with Superintendent Lisa Oliver-Estes, who is white, at the center of many of his complaints.

Oliver-Estes “runs Larch and is the ringleader behind the blatant discrimination and retaliation Mr. Clark has experienced for the last few years as a Larch employee,” the lawsuit states.

Private attorney Yaida O. Ford, based in Washington, D.C., is representing Clark. Ford said Clark, as a government employee, was required to pursue numerous regulated grievance options before he could either have an administrative hearing before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or sue his employer.

“The EEOC process is very slow. It has a three-year backlog,” Ford said in a phone interview. “I have cases from 2015 that don’t have a hearing date. Things got worse for (Clark) as he tried to work through the process so he’s choosing to sue. He doesn’t want to wait.”

Alleged misconduct

The allegations outlined in the complaint begin in June 2015, when Clark learned four female employees were being sexually intimate with and performing personal favors for inmates, according to the lawsuit.

The group of women included two correctional specialists, a classification counselor — an employee who decides where inmates should be housed within the facility — and an office assistant who were smuggling mail and contraband outside the prison for inmates, according to the lawsuit.

Clark reported the women to his supervisors, which included the superintendent.

Immediately after, the group accused Clark of “acting unprofessionally toward them,” the complaint says. No specifics were ever provided, and a letter referring to the accusation remains in his personnel file, according to the lawsuit.

He also became the target of internal investigations at that time, but none of the women were investigated, the lawsuit states.

In early November 2015, Clark told a deputy of prisons that he reported his co-workers and how he was punished for doing so. But nothing came of the interaction, and two weeks later, Clark was falsely accused of physically assaulting a much larger supervisor during a staff meeting, according to the lawsuit.

Around that time, Clark was transferred to the corrections center’s west Vancouver office and stripped of his job responsibilities as a classification counselor. He handed over his work keys and was forced to work in a location with no office, telephone or computer, the lawsuit says.

He was transferred back to Larch in December 2015 but wasn’t placed into his previous position. Clark was instead placed in a warehouse outside the prison’s perimeter, according to the lawsuit.

Clark resumed his usual duties in January 2016 when the prison decided the allegations against him were untrue. But the following month, Clark unexpectedly received two disciplinary letters — one from the superintendent and another from the same prisons deputy he spoke to about his female co-workers. Both referenced the allegations that were found to be false, according to the lawsuit.

In the months that followed, Clark says he was put in danger by one of the inmates who was receiving personal favors from a female employee, the lawsuit states.

Denied advancement

The lawsuit not only alleges that Clark was threatened in the workplace, it also states that potential violence by a former Larch inmate spilled out onto the streets of Vancouver, at the direction of the Department of Corrections.

On Dec. 23, 2016, Clark was approached by the former inmate at the Grand Central Station Fred Meyer. The man, whom Clark did not recognize, rushed at him and accused him of making trouble for prison employees; he “threatened to kill him if he ever returned to Larch,” the lawsuit says.

Clark reported the incident to the Vancouver Police Department. The officer tasked with investigating the threats ended up discussing it with Oliver-Estes, and then refused to discuss their progress with Clark moving forward, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Larch management recruited the former inmate to attack Clark but doesn’t go as far as accusing anyone in particular for plotting the confrontation.

“Management wanted to make the situation so bad for Clark that he would voluntarily quit working at Larch,” according to the lawsuit.

As Larch continued to be a hostile workplace, Clark was passed over for a promotion in December 2016, the lawsuit states.

He was told he missed a deadline and that the prison didn’t have enough information about his education. The lawsuit asserts that both reasons for Clark being denied consideration are untrue.

Clark argues Oliver-Estes treats similarly situated white employees at Larch much more favorably.

“Oliver-Estes’ refusal to consider Mr. Clark for a promotion is representative of her commitment to treating Mr. Clark less favorably because of his race …” the lawsuit says.

The superintendent, Clark says, has received reports about white employees doing favors for inmates, touching inmates inappropriately, physically assaulting black inmates and “encouraging inmates to file false grievances against black staff,” among other allegations. Oliver-Estes has ignored those reports and promoted some of the employees, according to the lawsuit.

Clark is asking for compensatory and punitive damages, the amount of which will be determined at trial. He is also hoping a judgement in his favor will halt the prison’s threatening actions against him, the lawsuit states.

Heather Williams, spokeswoman for Larch Corrections Center, said Thursday they have not received notice of the lawsuit, and therefore, could not comment on it.

Ford said shortly after the Department of Corrections was notified in September of the pending litigation, Larch moved Clark to a warehouse and gave his case load to another employee.

Columbian Breaking News Reporter

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