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June 26, 2022

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Vancouver’s spending on outside lawyers, settlements with employees tops $600K

Over 3 years city spent $600,000-plus related to harassment, discrimination lawsuits

By , Columbian politics reporter
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In three years, the city of Vancouver has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees investigating — and in some cases, settling — discrimination and harassment lawsuits filed against it by city employees.

Now, the city is facing additional complaints by two city employees who say they were victims of gender discrimination and retaliation, among other claims.

The first was filed in November 2017 by Assistant City Attorney Debra Quinn. The second complaint was filed earlier this month by Vancouver police Officer Julie Ballou.

For both cases, and others like them, the city has hired outside attorneys to investigate the claims and either negotiate a settlement or move forward with a trial.

Between 2015 and 2017, the city used outside attorneys for at least nine complaints, based on records provided to The Columbian under the state public records act.

Attorney Billing: By The Numbers

For 2015-2017

Vancouver:

• $621,724.06 total spent on attorney fees/settlements

• $300,000 in settlements/attorney fees

• 9 investigations/claims concerning discrimination or harassment

• 2 settlements

• $900 to review emails for a case

• $45 email minimum

Spokane

• $167,503 total spent on attorney fees

• 7 investigations/claims concerning discrimination or harassment.

• At least 2 settlements totaling $1,040,000

Everett

• $48,232 total spent on attorney fees

• 4 investigations/claims concerning discrimination or harassment

• At least 1 settlement totaling $224,000

Investigators substantiated two, and the city later settled those complaints. All told, the city has spent $321,724 on outside attorneys and an additional $300,000 on settlements. That does not include billing for Quinn’s current complaint; that investigation and trial preparation are ongoing.

The first settlement was awarded to Kimberly Armstrong, a former procurement specialist. She received $150,000 plus $50,000 to pay for her attorney’s fees. Additional attorney billing costs paid by the city in this case were $280 for a mediation meeting. She accused her boss of bullying, gender discrimination and retaliation. The city said it settled to avoid an expensive jury trial but that it denied Armstrong’s allegations.

Armstrong’s case is unique. Other cases resulted in costly spending on outside attorneys to investigate complaints.

The second settlement awarded former Assistant City Attorney Suzanne Lampkin $100,000. She, too, claimed she was harassed and discriminated against, as well as subjected to a hostile work environment.

The city spent $38,981.52 for Christie Law Firm to conduct interviews and prepare for mediation. The Seattle-based firm also charged the city for emails at a minimum of $45 apiece. The city worked with the law firm for four months, then spent an additional $495 for a lawyer to review publicity questions about the settlement.

Another example is the city’s investigation into claims of gender bias at the Vancouver Fire Department. Those claims were substantiated by Seattle-based investigator Rebecca Dean.

The four-month investigation cost the city $21,882.

The most expensive case between 2015 and 2017, that didn’t result in a settlement, related to the first time Quinn filed a complaint regarding retaliation and discrimination.

Quinn was placed on administrative leave in November 2015 before she could discuss Lampkin’s case with investigators in her role as assistant city attorney. While on leave, she filed her first discrimination complaint. Quinn’s claims were investigated at a cost of $68,664. Quinn said some of her allegations were sustained, but there were no repercussions or changes made.

Making comparisons

When compared with Spokane, which boasts a larger population, Vancouver is spending less on settlements, but its spending on the investigation side is about $150,000 more in the three-year period.

In terms of settlements, Spokane out spent Vancouver about four times over. The most expensive settlement paid out by Spokane was $875,000 in May 2017. The city settled with former wastewater treatment facility worker Sonya O’Brien, who sued on the grounds of being harassed by her male co-workers for five years.

Everett’s total cost for outside attorney investigations is significantly less. Between 2015 and 2017, the city spent $48,232 to investigate four complaints. The total billing ranged from $2,062 to $20,868 to investigate a whistleblower complaint.

One of the investigations resulted in a $224,217 settlement with firefighter James Nagle, who alleged he was discriminated against because he suffered from anxiety and depression.

What triggers a probe?

Vancouver City Attorney Bronson Potter said the city often hires outside investigators when the issue at hand is complex or when a complaint is made against upper management, depending on the nature of the complaint.

“For instance, it may be appropriate to handle isolated allegations in-house,” Potter said in an email. “Also, if there is an actual or potential conflict of interest, such as a complaint against one of our internal investigators, this might necessitate an outside investigator.”

He estimates an outside investigator is hired between six and eight times a year.

“I think the most common reason is that the complaint is made against a member of the city’s upper management,” Potter said.

When an investigation is referred to an outside attorney, Potter said he reviews all billings prior to payment, but that it can be difficult to estimate just how much an investigation might cost the city at its outset.

“The scope of the investigation can change depending on what witnesses say,” he said.

Although there’s no defined settlement strategy — that varies on a case-by-case basis — Potter said the city is constantly considering the cost of mounting a defense versus the cost of settlement.

Both Quinn and Ballou have requested jury trials, though settlements could still happen.

For Quinn, a back-door settlement isn’t good enough, she said. She wants the city to take her complaints — and those like hers — seriously and implement real change, including hiring an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance officer and ensuring the leadership team is comprised of no more than 50 percent white, male employees.

The city’s culture needs to shift, she said, as does how leadership responds to complaints.

“The city is committed to maintaining a welcome workplace free from harassment and discrimination,” City Manager Eric Holmes said in an email. “One of the ways we do this is to assure that if complaints are filed, we follow up with a fair, thorough and impartial investigation.”

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