Two women who claimed they were wrongfully terminated after they refused to break the law and reported government misconduct were awarded more than $16 million by a jury on Thursday. Just before the jury came back, both parties reached an agreement that the amount would be capped at $8 million and neither party would appeal the verdict.
"When I sit here right now, I have never been more proud," said whistleblower Elaine Lincoln on Friday. "The Port broke the law. They broke the law because they fired us for being a whistleblower."
"Even though this verdict is great, it is still sad because I lost a job I loved. l lost my hometown. I had to move to find a new job," said whistleblower and former Port employee Deanna Zachrisson.
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Deanna Zachrisson and Elaine Lincoln were fired by the Port of Seattle in 2015. The women claim they were victims of retaliation by Port Commissioner John Creighton.
The women were leaders of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's Dining and Retail Group. Their attorney told KIRO 7 the women refused to violate Federal Aviation Administration regulations and reported Creighton for ethics violations.
The women said Creighton pressured them to extend preferential airport restaurant leases to friends and campaign donors. When they refused and reported Creighton's behavior, the lawsuit claims Creighton found out and had their emails searched.
The search of their emails uncovered emails that Creighton said were "racist" and disrespectful. On Twitter, Creighton promised to "clean house."
"I was mortified with what they did with the emails, but I was devastated to lose that job," said Lincoln.
"This case was never about email. It was about doing the right thing," said Zachrisson, "If there's anything that's been difficult and unfortunate, it's that the emails were a distraction from what was really going on. It feels great the jury saw that. The jury spent time, looked at it and understood what was going on."
The Port of Seattle conducted an internal investigation that lasted only two weeks and then fired the women, blaming the quick action on pressure from media coverage of the incident, according to the lawsuit.
Both women had been with the port for 15 years and had outstanding performance reviews and no prior disciplinary history, according to their attorney.
On the stand, Deanna Zachrisson apologized about calling people names in email, but said she believed she should have been disciplined, not fired.
The jury agreed when it reached a finding yesterday, awarding the women more than $16 million.
But before the jury came back, the plaintiffs and the Port of Seattle reached an agreement that caps the amount at $8 million and doesn't allow the Port of Seattle to appeal.
KIRO-7 asked the Port of Seattle for an on-camera interview, but instead, Peter McGraw, with the Port of Seattle, provided a statement:
“An agreement with the plaintiffs has been reached to cap damages at $8M. We continue to believe they clearly violated Port policy by disparaging tenants and colleagues over email. We have no further comment at this time, and the Port declines to go on camera.”
The port would not answer the question about whether or not the $8 million settlement would be covered by insurance.
The attorneys for the whistleblowers said the jury's award of more than $16 million is the highest recorded verdict in an individual employment case on record in Washington, and still the port fails to acknowledge any wrongdoing.
They've really just made the problem worse, so that's where we come in, fighting bullies," said Liz Quick, an attorney for the whistleblowers," There are two people who are willing to stand up to what seemed like a bullying situation. They took great risk in doing that and they persevered."
"This has really never been about money. This has always been about something much larger," said Beth Bloom, attorney for the whistleblowers. "Are we going to make employees feel safety to come forward when they see something wrong, or are we not?"
Zachrisson has already moved to California to work at an airport, and Lincoln is planning to move out of state too.
"Obviously, it's risky to stand up and say, 'This is not right. This is illegal. This is unethical.' It's not easy to do but, at the end of the day, I can live with myself knowing that I followed my conscience," said Zachrisson, "We start again. We build a new life. It's what we do."
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