Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Bias, bother, then firing – says ex-King enviro worker, in suit

by May 17th, 2013

A fired resource specialist at the King Conservation District in a civil lawsuit filed this week in King County Superior Court is seeking economic and compensatory damages, claiming she was discriminated against in the workplace for being pregnant, and was sexually harassed by female superiors and then railroaded out of her job for speaking up about it and for starting union organizing talks amongst employees even though – she claims – she had nothing but positive performance reviews and pay raises with no disciplinary notices prior to the day she was let go.

These are the key assertions in the suit filed by Marcie L. Myers, 30, of Maple Valley, who worked at the district from 2007 until May 1 of last year. The District’s Executive Director Sara Hemphill disputes Myers’ account and says her termination was warranted, but would not discuss specifics of the decision to fire her.

Alleged disparaging of Jews, Chinese, non-citizens, women without make-up
However the lawsuit details allegations of an escalating series of workplace events Myers says forced her to seek changes which she asserts then led to her abrupt dismissal without just cause. According to the lawsuit, supervisors made derogatory remarks about Jews, Chinese, and non-citizens, talked sex at lunchtime to her discomfort, and criticized her clothes and lack of make-up. She says in the suit that she was initially afraid to take action because the district had previously fired other internal critics and/or made them sign silence vows.

Inappropriate touching alleged
Myers claims in the suit that Hemphill often touched her inappropriately, in the small of her back and by massaging her shoulders, and “made unwelcome comments about her lack of femininity,” the suit claims.

Not so, says boss
Hemphill said she never heard race-inflected comments in the workplace and that allegations of unwanted touching by her don’t “ring any bells….” Other insulting comments Myers claims were made also don’t ring true, asserted Hemphill. “People who work in this organization are softhearted, empathetic,” she said, and would not have made such mis-steps. Claims of comments about Myers’ lack of make-up and casual attire “don’t make any sense,” said Hemphill, because almost all the District’s workers go into the field frequently and dress informally out of necessity.

Plaintiff: things got worse after pregnancy
But according to Myers’ lawsuit, things got worse when she became pregnant. Hemphill allegedly told her a woman can’t be a good mother if she’s working full time, and another supervisor allegedly said that “she believed people should’t have children.” As well, supervisors “made derogatory comments about her weight, one saying to her that she “waddled when she walked.” Upon learning after Myers’ return from her November 2011 to February 2012 maternity leave that she planned to have a second child, that same superior advised Myers to “never have more than one child,” the suit asserts.

Myers also charges that Hemphill refused to give her a flexible work schedule although it was in the workplace policy to permit that. Hemphill concedes only that she probably indicated to Myers that being a working mother is “a very challenging task.”

Sandbagged for speaking up, Myers asserts
The crux of the civil action is that after Myers raised her concerns to District officials about alleged unfair treatment and also held an initial meeting with some colleagues to start exploring workplace unionization, she was essentially sandbagged and summarily dismissed, despite unvarying positive evaluations and no prior disciplinary notices.

Myers claims in the suit that she e-mailed her direct supervisor Jason Monoghan on April 27, 2012 to convey that she felt harassed by another superior (not Hemphill) and that three days later on April 30 she met with Monoghan and Hemphill to discuss the concerns. The next day May 1, she asserts in the suit, she was called into a meeting with Hemphill and notified the district had decided to discharge her for “rude, disrespectful and negative behavior” and a “general bad attitude in the workplace.”

Public Data Ferret’s King County+Ethics archive

She was informed, she claims, that there were four specific complaints against her from co-workers – but that specifics weren’t shared with her and that she had not previously gotten any reprimands. Her attorneys write in the civil suit that she sought and got a follow-up meeting May 7, 2012 to try to resolve matters but at the end of it was handed by Hemphill a memo dated May 9 that the district would involuntarily “separate,” or discharge her and potentially object to her attempts to seek unemployment compensation from the state unless she would agree to resign and sign away legal claims and rights to speak out against the district. She refused that, and also asserts in the civil suit that the district has previously taken tangible actions to fire and silence workplace critics.

Hemphill responded to Myers’ allegations of being unfairly forced out by saying that, “It doesn’t have any connection to any reality of which I am aware. We took every action with measure, redundancy, outside oversight, and with a great deal of research, consideration, deliberation and professional involvement.” Hemphill declined to discuss exactly why Myers was dismissed, but added the district would be represented in court by lawyers yet to be hired, through a legal services consulting firm serving the numerous regional conservation districts in Washington state.

Myers in the civil suit seeks economic damages “including but not limited to past and future wages, loss of retirement benefits, and other benefits” as proven at trial; plus compensatory or non-economic damages including emotional distress, plus attorney’s and related fees.

Barring any pre-trial out-of-court settlement, the case is likely to take a year or more to resolve. We will report on the ultimate outcome here. The mission of the King Conservation District, Hemphill says, is to “engage private landowners in good conservation stewardship.” It is one of many such public regional conservation entities around the state, created under Washington law.

UPDATE, 5/17/13, 2:20 p.m.: Myers declined a request to comment further but her attorney Mark Davis of the Seattle law firm Badgley Mullins Turner released the following statement: “Ms. Myers stands by the content of her complaint as filed with the King County Superior Court on May 14, 2013. We anticipate that discovery will corroborate the substance of Ms. Myers’ factual allegations and further establish the merit of her legal claims. We can confirm the defendant’s actions have had a significant and disabling impact upon all aspects of Ms. Myers’ life, including her family life, professional career, personal finances, and overall well-being. Accordingly, we are confident that a jury will return a substantial verdict in her favor.”

RELATED: King Conservation District Rates and Charges; staff; board; landowner incentive programs.

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