Wash. Firefighters Win $1 Million Discrimination Suit

April 6, 2013
Jurors found the city of Pullman unlawfully retaliated against the firefighters during the course of a 2009 sexual harassment investigation.

April 05--A federal jury has awarded a group of Pullman firefighters more than $1 million in damages in their employment discrimination lawsuit against the city.

The civil lawsuit was filed in 2011 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, and jurors in Spokane rendered their verdict Tuesday after a six-day trial, according to court documents.

Jurors found the city of Pullman unlawfully retaliated against the firefighters during the course of a 2009 sexual harassment investigation of Capt. Eric Reiber.

The jury awarded $325,800 to Reiber and $135,000 each to Rudy Fisher, Christopher Volk, John Gollnick, Jason Wilkins and Christopher Wehrung, holding both the city of Pullman and the estate of former Fire Chief Pat Wilkins liable. Pat Wilkins, who died of cancer in November, and Jason Wilkins are not related.

Former City Supervisor John Sherman and Human Resources Manager Karen Sires were also named as defendants in the lawsuit but will not be held personally liable for the city's actions, according to court documents.

Five of the firefighters had accused the city of retaliating against them when they stepped forward to oppose sexual harassment allegations levied against Reiber by a female firefighter. They believed the allegations were themselves retaliatory against Reiber, who had previously expressed concerns about an inappropriate relationship that a firefighter was allegedly having with one of her superiors, according to court documents.

The firefighters accused the city of ordering them to participate in the investigation of Reiber, even though they felt their responses would be held against them later. The city also initiated a separate investigation of the firefighters to determine if their remarks during the Reiber investigation were intended as retaliatory against Reiber's accusers.

The firefighters were disciplined by the city but eventually had their punishments, including suspensions and demotions, reduced or eliminated during the course of arbitration.

The monetary awards set by the jury Tuesday are intended as compensation for emotional distress, humiliation and pain and suffering experienced by the firefighters during the investigation and its aftermath. Reiber's award also includes compensation for lost wages.

Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson said Thursday that city officials were surprised by the jury's verdict.

He said the Washington Cities Insurance Authority will cover the costs of the damages, meaning city finances will not be directly affected by the jury's decision.

The WCIA supplied the city with its attorney, Michael Bolasina of Summit Law Group in Seattle, who "was as surprised as the rest of us were with the verdict," Johnson said.

He said Bolasina plans to file several motions in the case within the coming days and that an appeal could follow.

Holly Bowen can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 239, or by email to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @DailyNewsHolly

Copyright 2013 - Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho

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