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Spokane agrees to settle sexual harassment lawsuit by former wastewater employee for $875K

May 24, 2017 Updated Wed., May 24, 2017 at 10:11 p.m.

FILE - Spokane City Hall (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane City Hall (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane will pay a former worker at the city’s wastewater treatment facility $875,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed last year.

Sonya O’Brien left the city after five years of harassment that included being “ridiculed and insulted” by her male co-workers and using a locker room frequently defaced with urine, feces and tobacco spit according to the lawsuit. When O’Brien filed an equal employment opportunity claim against the city for the treatment, it was shared with her coworkers without the redaction of her name. City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said before the unanimous vote approving the settlement Monday night O’Brien “deserved better.”

“As a former city employee, I want to personally apologize to Ms. O’Brien for the treatment she was subjected to while she worked for the City of Spokane,” Stratton said.

The vote was 6-0 in favor of the settlement. City Councilman Breean Beggs abstained.

O’Brien’s attorney, Brad Axtell, said Wednesday his client was pleased with the outcome and the steps the city has taken to improve its policies. The city is currently revising its sexual harassment policies with the involvement of the Spokane chapter of the National Organization of Women as part of a settlement of an ethics complaint filed by the group in response to the ouster of former Police Chief Frank Straub.

“I can say I’m confident that the city is taking steps in the right direction, to revamp their policies and procedures,” Axtell said.

O’Brien’s supervisor at the plant, Tim Pelton, was also named in the lawsuit. He left his job at the city not long after the complaint was filed, said Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the city. Another employee faced disciplinary action, but resigned before that process was completed, Coddington said.

The $875,000 settlement is about a third of the $2.3 million O’Brien sought in her original tort claim against the city. Depositions were underway in the case, and interviews were scheduled later this month between attorneys and Mayor David Condon, as well as Blaine Stum, former chairman of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, who prepared a report last summer detailing what he saw as shortfalls in the city’s handling of harassment complaints, according to court records.

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