The jury verdict which awarded $ 8.1 million to a former Hanford manager for discrimination, retaliation and unfair dismissal was overturned in a split decision on appeal.
The the decision has been filed Tuesday, July 14, by a three-judge panel from Division III of the Washington State Court of Appeals.
A Benton County Superior Court jury found Julie Atwood, former director of the Mission Support Alliance, in an October 2017 verdict.
She sued Mission Support Alliance, an entrepreneur from the Department of Energy at the Hanford nuclear reserve, and Steve Young, claiming that as a supervisor at the Hanford site, he aided and encouraged discrimination and retaliation against him.
Young, who had cancer and died in May 2019, was also mayor of Kennewick when he was Atwood’s boss.
“We believe the Court (of Appeal) made the right decision,” said Bob Wilkinson, Mission Support Alliance president said Tuesday when the new ruling was released.
Atwood attorney Jack Sheridan of Seattle said Atwood plans to appeal the decision to the Washington State Supreme Court.
“We are disappointed that the Court of Appeal guessed the jury’s verdict after a four-week trial,” Sheridan said. “In his view, it appears that the court gave no deference to the jury’s verdict as required by law, but gave great deference to MSA’s opinion on the evidence. “
Two of the appeals court judges said Judge Doug Federspiel, who had been temporarily assigned to Benton County from Yakima County, improperly allowed the admission of evidence regarding disciplinary action taken by Mission Support Alliance against other employees.
In the other incidents used for comparison, MSA employees were sanctioned but were not terminated.
Atwood said she was forced to quit her job when she told MSA investigators they should investigate the actions of her boss, Young, as they questioned her about an anonymous complaint filed against she.
The complaint against Atwood said she was contributing to a hostile work environment both because of an alleged scorecard violation and because they believed she received special treatment from the MSA due to good relationship with a DOE official overseeing MSA.
Atwood believed her comments were confidential when she told investigators that Young, then mayor of Kennewick, was doing business for the town during the hours he was supposed to work for contractor Hanford and get paid with taxpayer money federal.
The investigation cleared Atwood of wrongdoing, but was told she was fired anyway. Instead, she resigned, hoping to save her retirement and professional reputation, her lawyer said.
MSA lawyers have argued that she was told she was fired because she repeatedly ignored Young’s policy that her employees were to be on site, on time, and traceable. They said the problem was exacerbated when Atwood took a short trip overseas, sending a message from the airport that she was leaving town but planning to work while she was away.
Two of the appeals court judges, Laurel Siddoway and Kevin Korsmo, found the jury was swayed by evidence of MSA’s treatment of other employees, even though their circumstances were significantly different from Atwood’s.
“Not only was the evidence irrelevant, but it clearly had the ability to confuse and mislead the jury,” the appeal court ruling said.
In one case, a truck driver said that a senior MSA official retaliated against him when he told the official to stop flirting and try to contact the truck driver’s wife . The manager was accused of inappropriately touching the employee’s wife in a bar.
The director was removed from his post, according to court documents.
In another incident, a union member did not show up for work or call when he was late. The trade unionist received a letter saying that further violations of the policy would cause him to lose his job.
In another incident, a man was suspended for two weeks for making negative and degrading comments that affected relations with the DOE and other MSA employees.
Atwood was hired “at will” and there was no requirement that she receive warnings before being fired, the appeals court said.
Sheridan had argued that when an employer hastily terminates an employee rather than imposing progressive discipline, such as giving warnings, the termination is likely to have been retaliation.
The judge is dissenting
The dissenting opinion in the case, filed by Justice Robert Lawrence-Berrey, said it agreed that a new trial was needed.
But the trial court’s errors did not affect the jury’s verdict on the retaliation and wrongful dismissal and these should be upheld, he said.
The disparate treatment of male employees was used as evidence in his third complaint, alleging gender discrimination, and the jury’s verdict on it should be overturned, Lawrence-Berrey said.
Sheridan said in oral argument: “For the sake of comparison, let’s look at the men who we know have done something wrong and see how they were treated. … none of these men are fired. This is our case. It is our case of discrimination.
Mission Support Alliance provides services across Hanford for the DOE, including utilities, information technology and road services. Atwood was a project manager in the portfolio management division of the entrepreneur, helping the DOE integrate the work done by the many entrepreneurs at the DOE in Hanford.
The federal government spends about $ 2.5 billion a year on Hanford’s environmental clean-up. The site is contaminated by past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
This story was originally published July 15, 2020 5:00 a.m.