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Kennewick mayor, Hanford contractor hit with $8.1M verdict. Now they want a retrial

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 25, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

A Department of Energy contractor and its employee, the Kennewick mayor, are asking for a new trial after a jury awarded $8.1 million for retaliation and discrimination against a former manager.

Alternately, they have asked the judge in the case to reduce the “unreasonable” size of the verdict.

In October, a jury found in favor of former Mission Support Alliance manager Julie Atwood, after listening to testimony about how she was forced to resign in 2013.

Her attorney said she was forced out after she told investigators that they should be looking into the actions of her boss, Steve Young, as they were interviewing her about a complaint filed against her.

She believed her comments were confidential when she said that Young, the mayor of Kennewick, was conducting business for the city on hours he was supposed to be working for the Hanford contractor and getting paid with federal tax dollars.

The verdict includes $2.1 million in lost wages and benefits, covering both past and potential future wages. The remaining $6 million is for emotional harm.

The amount is excessive, said Denise Ashbaugh in a hearing last week before Judge Doug Federspiel, a Yakima County Superior Court judge tapped to hear the case in Benton County Superior Court. Ashbaugh, of Seattle, represents both Mission Support Alliance and Young.

For Atwood, who is 62, to earn that amount she would have to work until she is 75, Ashbaugh said.

Atwood did not seriously look for a job after she resigned in 2013, applying for only 12 jobs in four years despite hundreds of jobs that were available, Ashbaugh said.

Seldom are cases stronger than this one on a plaintiff’s failure to mitigate harm, she said.

Atwood resigned hoping to save her pension and professional reputation, after Mission Support Alliance management told her she was being fired, said Atwood’s attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle.

He argued that her humiliating treatment at Mission Support Alliance triggered ongoing mental illness with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. She needed time to recover. In addition, her reputation had been ruined by false rumors that Mission Support Alliance officials helped spread at Hanford, making her unemployable there, he said.

The $6 million for emotional harm was even more unreasonable, Ashbaugh said.

“Atwood’s claim resulted from a single day, the day her employment was terminated,” she said.

Sheridan countered that his client “lives this every day.”

No one would say that a soldier with PTSD suffered only on the single day of an event that triggered the disorder, Sheridan said.

Ashbaugh also asked that the case be retried on the grounds that the defense had recently learned that a juror knew one of the witnesses.

Although the juror did not recognize the witness’s name during jury selection, he realized the witness was his neighbor when the Department of Energy employee testified. The DOE employee described seeing Atwood upset and leaving the building pushing a wheelchair piled with her belongings because no hand truck was available.

The arguments Thursday also covered whether enough evidence had been presented to show gender discrimination.

Atwood’s attorney claimed gender discrimination, retaliation and wrongful discharge in the case.

The plaintiff had relied largely on accounts of other women working at Mission Support Alliance to show gender discrimination, Ashbaugh said.

Sheridan countered that he had provided examples of male employees who were not disciplined for serious infractions, including an insurance mistake that could have lost the company millions of dollars, or given short suspensions.

In contrast, Atwood was cleared in two investigations of allegations against her, but was told just after the second, brief investigation that she was being fired, Sherwood said.

Young aided and abetted in the anti-women culture, he said.

Among examples was an email he forwarded from his work computer to other mayors with locally named Barbie doll images and a comment made in Atwood’s presence about another woman employee’s “mean-a-pause,” Sherwood said.

The judge did not rule this week.


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