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Lawsuit against county becomes campaign issue

An age and disability discrimination lawsuit filed against Clallam County in February 2009 has emerged as a campaign issue for both challengers to Deborah Kelly, the incumbent prosecutor.

The candidates, Sequim attorney and developer Larry Freedman and Port Angeles attorney David Fox, claim the lawsuit shows mismanagement of the prosecutor's office and brings unnecessary costs to taxpayers.

The lawsuit names both Kelly and her chief deputy prosecutor Mark Nichols.

It was filed by Carol Case, former deputy prosecutor; Elain Sundt, former office administrator; Kathy Nielsen, former deputy prosecutor; and Hollie Hutton, representing her mother Robin Porter, a former legal assistant who died in January 2008.

It seeks "special damages," including back pay, damages for mental anguish and emotional distress, and front pay or reimbursement up to

$1 million for each claimant.

The county's response, filed April 6, 2009, either denies the allegations or characterizes them as "mischaracterizations of the facts."

When asked to comment, Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones said, "There's really not a whole lot I can say.

"It's being defended by the county's risk pool. They tell us there's no basis for the claim and we're going to win it."

The complaint claims that 64-year-old Case, 61-year-old Sundt, 53-year-old Porter and 55-year-old Nielsen were fired or resigned despite being "excellent, dedicated, committed" employees.

Porter was fired in February 2007, Sundt in June 2008, and Case in February 2009. Nielsen resigned on an unstated date.



Prosecutor since '03

Kelly took office in January 2003 after defeating incumbent Chris Shea in the November 2002 election. She appointed Nichols as chief deputy in 2006.

The lawsuit claims Kelly, Nichols and others treated the four employees and other women in a "hostile, demeaning and condescending manner," subjecting them to "intimidation, offensive comments and conduct and disparate treatment because of their age."

The women's complaints about the behavior led to "subsequent adverse employment actions" by Kelly and Nichols, according to the lawsuit.

The retaliation made them unable to reasonably perform essential job functions and caused Nielsen to resign.

As a result, the women have been denied promotional opportunities and equal pay, and have suffered loss of job opportunities, employment and other economic losses and "special damages," the lawsuit states.



Disgruntled employees

Seattle attorney Michael Patterson is defending the county through its risk pool.

Patterson said this simply is a case of disgruntled employees.

"I think the most telling story is Deb Kelly was elected in 2003 and I believe the case load has doubled since and there's two fewer attorneys."

"It's one of these situations that's inevitable in government. You have shrinking budgets and an increased workload. You're being told to work harder and that you're not going to get a raise.

"Some people are floating along, going through the motions, and they get disgruntled."

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