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King County appeals $7M jury award to former public defender stalked by ex-client

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 7, 2021

Sheila LaRose is a former King County public defender who was stalked by a former client. LaRose, who suffered extreme PTSD and was medically terminated from her job in 2017, sued King County. In October, a Pierce County jury awarded her $7 million and found that the county had created a gender-based hostile work environment.  (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
Sheila LaRose is a former King County public defender who was stalked by a former client. LaRose, who suffered extreme PTSD and was medically terminated from her job in 2017, sued King County. In October, a Pierce County jury awarded her $7 million and found that the county had created a gender-based hostile work environment. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
By Sara Jean Green Seattle Times

SEATTLE – King County is appealing a $7 million jury verdict awarded in October to a former public defender who suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after being stalked by a former client.

Sheila LaRose, 58, filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court in 2015, seeking damages for the harm she suffered at the hands of a serial stalker who became obsessed with her during her representation of him in a 2012 felony stalking case.

He repeatedly called her at work, and after he was released from jail in August 2013, he left women’s underwear on her car, showed up unexpectedly near her workplace, stuffed her mailbox with literature explaining the procedure for a woman to convert to Islam to marry a Muslim man, and eventually peered into her bedroom window, court records show.

The Seattle Times published a story about LaRose’s yearslong legal battle last month. Her stalker, now 48, is incarcerated at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center for failing to register as a sex offender and the earliest he can be released is on Nov. 2, 2022.

The jury didn’t find LaRose’s law firm, The Defender Association, now known as the Public Defender Association, liable for LaRose’s injuries. But jurors did find King County liable for its gender-based hostile work environment after The Defender Association became one of four divisions within the King County Department of Public Defense on July 1, 2013.

LaRose’s lawsuit, filed in November 2015, alleged a gender-based hostile work environment under the Washington Law Against Discrimination because of the former client’s conduct.

The issue of a third party or nonemployee harasser was one without clear precedent in the state and the lawsuit was twice dismissed on summary judgment.

The state Court of Appeals, however, adopted the federal standard that an employer may be held liable for the harassment of an employee by a nonemployee and reversed the dismissals.

It is that legal standard that now appears to be at the heart of the county’s appeal.

“The trial court’s legal rulings would erroneously make employers responsible for the criminal acts of third parties that occur outside the work place even though an employer has no practical ability to control those third party acts. No existing case law supports so expansive a theory of employer liability,” Chase Gallagher, a spokesman for Executive Dow Constatine, wrote in an emailed statement.

His statement continued: “We are sympathetic to what Ms. LaRose had to endure with her former client, but King County taxpayers should not be liable for the criminal acts of a third party outside the county work place.

“The important legal issues in this case must be thoroughly considered and resolved on appeal.”

Court records show King County has requested that payment of the $7 million in damages for LaRose’s fear and anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life, anguish, emotional distress, and pain and suffering, along with the loss of her past and future wages and benefits be stayed until after the appeal is heard.

“It’s hard on Sheila,” Mary Ruth Mann, one of three attorneys who represented LaRose in the civil lawsuit, said Tuesday, noting it usually takes about a year for an appeal to be heard.

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