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March 2, 2024

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Vancouver police sergeant prevails on claim in lawsuit against city

Jury finds city violated law when it retaliated by denying promotion

By , Columbian staff reporter

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct factual errors in the headline and photo caption, and edited for clarity.

A federal jury last week found in favor of some of a Vancouver police sergeant’s retaliation claims against the city of Vancouver after she raised concerns of sex discrimination when she was passed over for promotions.

However, the jury did not find in favor of Sgt. Julie Ballou’s sex discrimination claims against the city or then-Vancouver police Chief James McElvain or that McElvain had violated Ballou’s First Amendment rights. Ballou filed the lawsuit against the city and McElvain in January 2019 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

The jury returned its verdict Nov. 22, after 10 days of trial. It found the city violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Washington Law Against Discrimination when it retaliated against Ballou by denying her a January 2019 promotion.

Because the jury found the city’s denial of the promotion was retaliatory, it awarded her $5,456 in non-economic damages, court records show.

Among her claims, Ballou alleged she was passed over for a sergeant’s promotion three times between June 2018 and January 2019 in favor of male colleagues who scored lower on exams than her, which she said was contrary to department practice. She also alleged six internal affairs investigations were opened against her after becoming eligible for promotion, designed to provide a basis to pass her over.

In a Tuesday statement, city officials said the damages the jury awarded Ballou are a fraction of what the city had offered to settle the case before trial.

“The city and Chief McElvain are grateful for the diligence, attention and service of the jurors,” a city statement said. “The city of Vancouver deeply values equity and equal opportunity for all our employees and the process the justice system provides.”

In her statement, Ballou, who’s been with the agency since 2005, celebrated what she called the “positive impact” her suit has had within the department. She said multiple women have been promoted to sergeant since she filed her lawsuit, and she noted the department’s hiring of two women assistant chiefs this year.

Still, Ballou said the agency needs to confront its history of treating women differently.

“I hope this verdict will motivate both the city and VPD to address the culture at VPD that continues to impact women,” Ballou said in the statement. “I hope anyone experiencing unlawful discrimination will pursue justice, despite the hardship and fears of retaliation.”