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$1M Verdict Against Employer for Retaliation Against Whistleblower

The plaintiff's job was eliminated from City budget after she was wrongfully fired by Mayor for questioning his executive assistant's unearned salary.

A former Human Resources Director was awarded $1 million for her wrongful termination against the City of Edmonds and its Mayor for their retaliation against her for cooperation in an investigation “over potential misuse of public funds” for the Mayor’s executive assistant’s salary.

Fired for doing her job

Mayor Michael Cooper fired Debi Humann on September 22, 2011, less than a month after she disclosed to Cooper that she was cooperating with a Washington State Auditor investigation into his executive assistant, Kimberly Cole, and her substantially high salary, questionable time-sheet and her unaccounted payroll expenses.

Mayor Cooper publicly issued a statement and was later quoted in the Seattle Times saying Humann was fired because of a “series of events” that led to the deterioration of trust causing him to  “no longer ha[ve] confidence in her ability to do the job and to work effectively with me,” according to the court order.

Position removed from budget in retaliation

Humann filed a whistleblower complaint and issued a press release on October 12, 2011.  Mayor Cooper, who was campaigning for reelection, lost his bid to David Earling on November 8, 2011. In his final City Council meeting as Mayor, Cooper and the Council voted to eliminate Humann’s HR Director position from the City’s upcoming 2012 budget, according to court documents.

The subsequent Mayor, Earling, reinstated Humann on December 15, 2011, only to lay her off, according to the amended budget, on December 31, 2011, according to court documents.

Humann made a second whistleblower complaint, and in March 2013, the City and Humann settled on back pay for the period of time she was initially fired by Cooper.  The City offered no remedy for their retaliatory elimination of funding for her position, so Humann filed an action against the City and the Mayors for First Amendment retaliation, wrongful discharge and defamation.

National increase in employer retaliation claims

Employer retaliation claims have been on the rise for the past eight years, according to a Washington Post report which attributes the increase to two Supreme court cases that have expanded on the type of employer behavior that can be considered retaliation.

In Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, a female forklift operator was reassigned from her forklift duty and suspended for 37 days as retaliation for complaining about her supervisor's sexual harassment.  The Supreme Court broadened retaliation to include a case-by-case standard that examines employer conduct within the context of the “surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships” that “would deter a reasonable employee from complaining.”  Examples of such conduct include:

  • Removing employee duties, reassignment to an inferior task.
  • Making a work schedule inconvenient for a young mother of school-aged children.
  • Exclusion from lunch trainings required for professional advancement.

(Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 126 S. Ct. 2405, 165 L. Ed. 2d 345 (2006))

The Supreme Court further extended employer retaliation to include third parties who are “adversely affected or aggrieved” by the employer’s retaliation.  In the 2011 case of Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, the Court said that “hurting” a man by firing him “was the unlawful act by which the employer punished” his fiancé for making an accusation of sex discrimination against their employer. (Thompson v. N. Am. Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. 170, 131 S. Ct. 863, 870, 178 L. Ed.)

In the past ten years, retaliation charges have been on the rise with 38,539 charges filed in 2013, according the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Jury finds City of Edmonds retaliated

The Washington District Court Jury found that the City of Edmonds did wrongfully terminate Humann in retaliation against her and in violation of her First Amendment protected speech by eliminating her position’s funding in the City budget.  According to the court order, Mayor Cooper had absolute immunity for his part in the budget changes because the supreme Court has established that legislators are not personally liable for their legislative acts.

Municipalities do not enjoy the same immunity so Humann was awarded $535,351 against the City of Edmonds for back pay and future economic losses. Mayor Earling was not liable as his actions of rehiring then laying off Humann were motivated by the pre-existing city budget.

Former Mayor Cooper and the City were also found to have defamed Humann because of the “stigmatizing statements” made by Cooper that “effectively exclude[d] [Humann] completely from her chosen profession.”

The jury awarded Humann $250,000 for impairment of reputation and another $250,000 for the emotional distress from the defamation, according to the jury verdict form. The case is Debi Humann V. City of Edmonds, United States District Court, W.D. Washington Case No. C13-101 MJP.

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