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Benton, Clifford, Rice prevail in lawsuit against Clark County over firing

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
7 Photos
Plaintiffs Christopher Clifford, left, and Don Benton stand after the verdict in their lawsuit trial in a nearly empty courtroom at the Clark County Courthouse on Thursday morning, May 20, 2021.
Plaintiffs Christopher Clifford, left, and Don Benton stand after the verdict in their lawsuit trial in a nearly empty courtroom at the Clark County Courthouse on Thursday morning, May 20, 2021. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Don Benton, the former director of the now-defunct Clark County Department of Environmental Services, was awarded $67,798 Thursday in his lawsuit against Clark County. In total, Benton and two of his former employees were awarded $693,998 by the jury.

Christopher Clifford, a program coordinator, and Susan Rice, an administrative assistant who had worked for the county for 19 years, each received six-figure awards.

Benton and Clifford became emotional after the verdict reading. They embraced their attorneys, shook hands and patted each other on the back. Rice was not present for the reading, but she viewed the proceedings remotely, according to her attorneys.

The trio had been laid off from their county jobs in May 2016 about two weeks after Benton submitted a whistleblower complaint about then-county manager Mark McCauley. Their complaint accused McCauley of illegal actions and political retaliation.

Clifford helped Benton draft the complaint, and Rice looked it over, according to trial testimony.

They filed their lawsuit in December 2016 alleging hostility and retaliation during their employment.

“I think the result kind of speaks for itself,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Mark R. Conrad of Seattle-based law firm Frey Buck. “This has been a long battle since 2016. I think my clients feel vindicated.”

Conrad and co-counsel Evan Bariault said the jury thoroughly looked at the evidence, took its time deliberating and based its findings on the facts.

The county’s attorney, Megan F. Starks of Seattle-based firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch, declined to comment after the verdict, citing a need to first talk to her client.

In a news release issued Thursday afternoon, the county thanked the jury for its service in the case.

“County leadership will be carefully reviewing the verdict and evaluating the county’s options moving forward,” the statement reads in part. “The county continues to be committed to providing services that enhance the quality of life for our diverse community, in part, by supporting and empowering county employees in their efforts to provide excellent public service.”

11 jurors agree

For all three plaintiffs, the same 11 out of 12 jurors agreed on the verdicts. Unlike criminal trials, civil cases do not require a unanimous verdict, only a supermajority of 10.

For Benton, the jury found the county terminated him in violation of public policy and awarded him $22,798 in economic damages and $45,000 in noneconomic damages.

For Rice, the jury found the county breached contract and violated specific promises of treatment. She was awarded $391,400 in economic damages. Jurors were told not to consider noneconomic damages with those findings.

For Clifford, the jury found the county terminated him in violation of public policy and breached contract. He was awarded $219,800 in economic damages and $15,000 in noneconomic damages.

Jurors deliberated for more than 20 hours over four days before reaching their verdicts.

Benton — at the time a Republican state senator — served as the department director from 2013 until he was terminated.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys noted that Benton’s award was less, in part, because he was able to find a job easier than the others, so his economic damages were mitigated. He spent the summer of 2016 managing Donald Trump’s Washington campaign. Seven months after his layoff, he took a job with the Trump administration — first, as a senior White House adviser to lead the transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency and later as the director of the Selective Service System.

“No one wants to believe their county government is so corrupt they would condone the vindictive elimination of an entire department to cover up wrongdoing and destroy the whistleblower, but they did. We proved it to a jury of our peers,” Benton wrote in an email to The Columbian after the verdict. “We are grateful to the jury and the justice system for our vindication today.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the evidence shows McCauley was at the helm of their clients’ termination.

“I don’t think that an unelected official has the authority to dissolve a $30 million department without having an open hearing and elected officials voting on it,” Conrad said. “If that’s true, then I think that’s a recipe for disaster, because you have an unelected person unilaterally making decisions, and that’s a scary proposition.”

Throughout the trial, Starks, the county’s attorney, maintained that McCauley had the authority as county manager to reorganize or dissolve the department under the home-rule charter passed by voters in 2014. She said Benton’s whistleblower complaint was not a substantial factor in the department’s reorganization, because it came after the move was in the works.

Clark County Councilor Julie Olson, the only current council member who served during the layoffs, said Thursday she didn’t want to “second guess” the layoffs or legal proceedings, calling the trial a “complex and complicated case.”

“The verdict is disappointing, but we will continue to strive to provide quality services to our community and support our employees as they provide those services to our community,” she said.

Olson called the county’s home-rule charter and role of the county manager “one of the more confusing and misunderstood parts of the case.”

“The charter gives the county manager, who is the chief executive, the authority to reorganize or change the organizational structure,” she said. “In my view, the verdict will have no impact on the role of the county manager or the relationship with the council.”

Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien could not be reached for comment. County Manager Kathleen Otto referred to the county’s statement.

The trial began May 3 and was held at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. The bulk of deliberations occurred at the Clark County Courthouse.

Reporter Jack Heffernan contributed to this story.

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