Five Washington State Patrol employees accuse the state of ignoring veteran preferences that would have helped them earn agency promotions.
The lawsuit in Spokane Superior Court says up to 100 WSP members could have been denied legally mandated boosts to their civil service scores that take into account not just right and wrong answers on exams but also factors such as military service.
Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno is hearing the case, which has the potential to affect more than 10 percent of the agency’s workforce.
“What we’re asking the state to do is simply follow the law,” said Spokane attorney Matt Crotty, who represents the quintet in a class-action lawsuit that includes a three-tour veteran of the Persian Gulf War living in Spokane.
Charles Arnold was honorably discharged from service in the U.S. Army in 1994. When he returned to the United States, he applied for a job with the WSP as a trooper. On his entrance exam, Arnold failed to receive a 10-percentage-point boost to his score that he argues should have been applied pursuant to a state law that was passed in the 1940s. As a result, the lawsuit alleges, Arnold did not receive employment with the agency until 1996, and two subsequent tours with the Army kept him from rising through the ranks as quickly as other nonmilitary employees.
The other four veterans allege they, too, were denied scoring increases based on their service. Under the law, those who serve in times of war can receive a 10-percentage-point boost, while reservists should receive a 5-percentage-point revision.
Sgt. Christina Martin, a Western Washington employee who is listed as lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she and her co-defendants pushed litigation to rectify what she called “a mistake” by the agency. Martin has been with the WSP since 1999 and served in Iraq with the Washington Army National Guard.
“Someone had to stand up,” Martin said. “That’s why we did it.”
One plaintiff has since been arrested on allegations of child sex abuse. Crotty said former Sgt. Kenneth Garrison, who resigned from the WSP in December, joined the lawsuit before the allegations came to light.
Moreno heard arguments Friday morning from Crotty and state Assistant Attorney General Jason Brown. Brown argued the case should be thrown out for multiple procedural issues, including the plaintiffs claiming relief under a federal employment law that grants veterans certain employment and continuing employment rights.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, the law cited in the WSP employees’ claim, assures that veterans are not discriminated against but does not say they should receive benefits above and beyond those of other employees, Brown argued.
“USERRA is a floor that employers cannot go below, not a ceiling that they have to live up to,” he said.
Moreno did not agree with that assessment, choosing to deny Brown’s motions to dismiss the case. Her ruling allows the lawsuit to proceed, with a potential trial date scheduled for later this spring.
Crotty, a veteran himself and a graduate of Gonzaga University Law School, has had some success working with USERRA. But Moreno said before her ruling she has had little experience working with the law, which was passed by Congress in 1994 to replace federal employment security laws for veterans written after World War II.
“I have spent quite a bit of time on this,” she said. “I have never really handled a case like this.”
If the court rules in the WSP employees’ favor, the decision could have far-reaching implications on the agency. Crotty and his partner in the case, Thomas Jarrard, filed a public records request that showed more than 100 WSP employees could be eligible for more favorable promotion consideration if the suit is successful.
Martin, the plaintiff, said she’s not blaming any single person for the alleged oversight.
“I just hope that we can continue working with the WSP to rectify this situation,” she said. “That’s the most we can hope for.”