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News / Northwest

Ex-warehouse supervisor at Western State Hospital claims his firing was based on race

By Shea Johnson, The News Tribune
Published: March 29, 2023, 7:43am

TACOMA — A former warehouse supervisor at Western State Hospital says he was fired one week after the closure of an investigation into his claim that he was being discriminated against because he is Black.

Christopher Denson, who began working for the state-run psychiatric hospital in November 2021, alleges that he was wrongfully terminated after six months on the job, according to a recently filed lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court. The suit also claims race discrimination, a hostile work environment, retaliation and civil conspiracy.

“Throughout the entire duration of Plaintiffs employment, beginning on the first day, he experienced various forms of discriminatory treatment from his immediate supervisor, from certain specific colleagues in his warehouse, and from upper management,” the lawsuit states.

It names as defendants the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the hospital in Lakewood, as well as four ex-colleagues and managers.

The Department of Social and Health Services declined to comment on the lawsuit, filed March 20 on Denson’s behalf by Tacoma-based Beverly Grant Law Firm.

“We have just received the complaint, are currently reviewing it with our legal counsel and cannot comment on pending litigation as it works its way through the legal process,” DSHS spokesperson Tyler Hemstreet said in a statement.

Denson, 37, said he filed a civil-rights complaint in April 2022 over the alleged discrimination and then was subjected to increasing levels of harassment from colleagues and a supervisor. The probe into his allegations was closed the next month, and he was terminated soon after, according to the lawsuit.

In the legal filing, Denson alleged that he was held to standards not expected of white counterparts; denied use of extra supplies such as a telephone, desk and office chair in his warehouse; and the subject of unfounded rumors.

Denson denied one rumor that he made his staff stand at parade rest as if they were in the military. Another — that he had supposedly believed one employee protected “the white warehouse more than the black warehouse” — had “shocked” him and he denied that he was even aware of those references that suggested a segregated workplace, according to the lawsuit.

“A lot of what I experienced in that time frame were things that were unbearable to witness as a former manager,” Denson said in a brief interview. “Having to work with that kind of stronghold on your neck everyday was just real tough.”

He claimed in the lawsuit that defendants sought to show him the personnel records of multiple employees, which they should have been barred from accessing due to a collective bargaining agreement. He also alleged that his signatures were forged on a training document that certified he had received training from a co-worker who held the same job, when Denson instead had been forced to rely on his staff for training.

Denson supervised six employees across three warehouses, according to attorney Thomas McCosh, who is representing him in the lawsuit. He specifically worked at a maintenance warehouse that keeps tools and other equipment. Another warehouse holds supplies used by patients and furniture and electronics used by employees. A third, on McNeil Island, stores food and other supplies for DSHS’s Secure Community Transition Facility.

In a tour of facilities early in his employment, the lawsuit alleges, the co-worker who held the same job told him that she was instructed to hire people of color; the DSHS had an institutional problem with employees engaging in racist behavior; and that some of Denson’s subordinates might not accept his authority because he was Black.

Denson later confided in that co-worker concerns about his treatment at work, believing that she was his representative in the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), according to the lawsuit. Denson alleged that several EDI members told him afterward that she was not part of their office, and Denson believed the co-worker shared their conversation with his supervisor.

The suit is seeking unspecified monetary and other damages, as well as attorney fees.