Clallam County denies discrimination allegation

After a denial of discrimination was issued by Clallam County this week, the lawyer representing disgruntled former and current employees said the age and disability discrimination case will go to court.

Two former employees, one current employee and the daughter of a deceased former employee, all either deputy prosecuting attorneys or office workers, jointly filed a claim they had been discriminated against in the workplace by Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly and her Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols.

Each of the claimants alleged either age or disability discriminations from the office.

Clallam County initially released a short statement denying the allegations but on Jan. 5, county-contracted attorney Michael Patterson, of Seattle, released a 17-page detailed denial of the allegations.

The statement comes after a 60-day waiting period required by state law. Initially, the allegation is filed as a claim and each party has time to negotiate and possibly settle out of court.

Now that the 60 days have passed, those who feel they were wronged are able to bring the case into state or federal court, which is exactly what they plan to do.

"It is not unusual that you'll have an entity denying all liability to a claim like this," said the four complainants' attorney Rick Creatura, of Tacoma.

"But since there have been no attempts to negotiate and no discussions, the next step apparently will be to file this claim in court."

The county's denial of allegations listed each employee or former employee by name, reporting the reasons for their dismissal or their treatment.

The four claimants are Carol Case, deputy prosecuting attorney, Elain Sundt, once an office administrator, Kathy Nielsen, a former deputy prosecuting attorney, and Hollie Hutton, who is representing her mother Robin Porter, a former legal assistant who died in January.

"These claims are based on personality conflicts and dissatisfaction of management styles, not unlawful discrimination," said Patterson, adding personality clashes tore through employee morale and "camps" or "cliques" began to form in support of or against Kelly.

"Plus, the numbers do not add up for an age discrimination case. Seven of 18 new hires that have come onboard since 2006 were over the protected age of 40."

Creatura's partner Stephanie Bloomfield said the turnover alone indicates the small office is having problems. "To attack the plaintiffs and claim they are

lying is something we routinely see when an employer is challenged for discrimination themselves," Bloomfield said.

Creatura indicated he also has accounts of discrimination from several more former employees in addition to those listed in the case.

Patterson said the prosecuting attorney's office had nothing to hide and already had opened its doors to an independent, unidentified investigator who found no wrongdoing.

"Two of the claimants, Ms. Case and Ms. Sundt, had made claims in the past that were investigated thoroughly," Patterson said. "Ms. Porter never leveled this allegation prior to this notice of claim and Ms. Nielsen was in the middle of a disciplinary hearing on her own actions when she quit her job."

Creatura stated the claims had been brought up but not sufficiently dealt with internally.

"Ultimately this comes down to the fact they were at-will employees, meaning they are hired at will, fired at will and can quit at will," Patterson said.

In regard to Case's disability claim, Patterson said the county "continues to engage in a long-term and more than reasonable process of accommodation."

Patterson estimated the case would last 18 months. The county will dip into its risk management pool that it shares with other counties, however, it is likely to pay a deductible of $100,000.

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