A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Wednesday from former Spokane police Chief Frank Straub alleging he was wrongfully fired.
Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled that Straub voluntarily resigned from the city on Sept. 22, so he can’t seek damages for a violation of his due process rights. Straub’s attorney said after the hearing that the former chief would “absolutely” appeal the decision and maintained that he was fired.
Rice pointed out that Straub used both the terms “resignation” and “termination” in his complaint when referring to his departure from the city, and that he signed a letter of resignation a few weeks after a news conference announcing the end of his city employment.
“I see it as a voluntary termination,” Rice said. “I don’t see it as a termination.”
Mary Schultz, Straub’s attorney, said Mayor David Condon and his staff attempted to publicly depict the departure as a resignation, but their actions amounted to forcing the former chief out of office.
Straub said in court filings he was called into a meeting with Condon and City Administrator Theresa Sanders on Sept. 21 and was confronted with letters from police brass alleging abuse and harassment. In that meeting, Condon requested Straub’s resignation, the former chief said, and did not share copies of the letters with him until the following day.
Then, “In less than a number of hours, they were out on the internet,” Schultz told Rice.
The attorney also said the city ignored Straub’s requests to revise a news release announcing his departure. And he wasn’t allowed to defend against the allegations in the letters from police brass, or from former police department spokeswoman Monique Cotton, who accused Straub of sexual harassment.
Straub has denied allegations of harassment and abuse.
Straub signed the resignation letter under protest so he could continue to receive full pay and benefits while working the final three months of his city career on special assignment with the city attorney’s office, Schultz said. Straub left the city’s employ on Jan. 1.
Records released in the aftermath of Straub’s departure have revealed that Condon, City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and Sanders knew of the sexual harassment allegations months before Straub’s ouster and never ordered an investigation. Cotton, the police department spokeswoman, asked for and received a transfer to a communications position in the parks department under the threat of legal action; she has since left her city job.
Attorneys for the city managers named in the suit argued Wednesday that they should be protected from legal claims by Straub because they were performing their jobs.
“This is just a big setup,” said John Spencer Stewart, the attorney representing Isserlis. “That’s all this case is.”
Keller Allen, the attorney representing Sanders, said, “I struggle trying to figure out what I’m defending my client against.”
Rice agreed, dropping the claims against Condon, Isserlis and Sanders in addition to those against the city.
But Schultz said the city and its representatives should have known releasing the letters from police brass, which were marked as attorney-client privileged communications across the top, without offering her client a chance to rebut them would have opened them to legal liability.
She also pointed out the “hypocrisy” of the city’s current probe into its handling of the Straub departure, with Condon refusing to release certain documents to an independent investigator because they are privileged communications between attorneys and clients.
“Here they are, refusing to participate in an investigation with their own investigators on the basis of attorney-client privilege,” she said. “And yet, the whole genesis of this claim has been sending out attorney-client privileged letters to the public on the internet. Yes, it’s a hypocrisy.”
In addition to Straub, who filed a $4 million claim against the city before suing, Cotton’s attorney has threatened legal action. Nancy Goodspeed, a former parks spokeswoman, was on sick leave when Cotton was put into a role similar to hers. She says she was effectively replaced by Cotton, and she filed a $1 million claim alleging age discrimination.
Kevin Roberts, the attorney representing Goodspeed, said Wednesday he is waiting for a review of the case by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that a discrimination lawsuit likely will follow.
City Councilman Breean Beggs said Wednesday he didn’t believe the Straub ruling would have an immediate effect on the process of reviewing remaining records in the city investigation.
“I believe it will take some of the emotional urgency out of the delays on releasing the documents,” Beggs said. “It’s not going to be such a clear change in the situation, and it’s not going to result in the immediate release of any documents.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart said he met with Condon on Wednesday, and they’ve agreed on a process to release to Cappel all documents where attorney-client privilege has not been invoked. Stuckart called the meeting “productive” and said he believed Cappel would have the records to begin writing her initial report on the matter by the end of next week.
Stuckart said he and Condon will continue to meet to discuss how to proceed with documents considered privileged.
Michael J. McMahon, the attorney chosen to represent the city in the Straub lawsuit, said after the hearing he was pleased with the result. Condon released a similar statement Wednesday afternoon.
McMahon said he and other city attorneys had offered on at least four occasions to hold a “name-clearing” hearing with Straub, all of them after the Sept. 22 news conference. Though the sides never met to discuss what could occur at such a hearing, they are generally held to allow public officials to offer evidence rebutting allegations of misconduct.
“We’ve said all along, if you want to have a hearing, let’s have a hearing,” McMahon said after Rice’s decision.
Schultz said the next step was taking the case to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“I certainly respect his decision,” Schultz said of Rice’s ruling. “But we disagree.”
Isserlis was the only city official named in the lawsuit to appear in the Spokane federal courtroom Wednesday morning. Straub was not present.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.