Former high-ranking employee, whistleblower sues Pierce County over racial discrimination

Former high-ranking employee, whistleblower sues Pierce County over racial discrimination

A former high-ranking Pierce County official filed a lawsuit against the county Wednesday claiming wrongful termination and racial discrimination.

Carol Mitchell, the county’s former senior justice counsel, was fired July 23, 2020, nine days after submitting a key legal brief in a whistleblower complaint to the state.

In her whistleblower complaint last year, Mitchell said she was retaliated against because of her advocacy for hiring women and minorities, insistence on gender equity and equal distribution of power between men and women in leadership.

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The Washington Office of Administrative Hearings dismissed her whistleblower complaint in October, stating “no genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether Carol Mitchell was the subject of retaliation...”

Mitchell, a Black woman, alleges in her newly filed lawsuit she was fired “due to her race and due to her opposition to racially discriminatory and hostile practices being perpetuated by the government.” The suit was filed in Pierce County Superior Court.

Pierce County issued a response to her lawsuit in which it denied her claims.

“Ms. Mitchell was dismissed lawfully. We deny her allegations in their entirety,” county communications director Libby Catalinich said in an email. “We cannot comment further on pending litigation.”

Judge Stanley Rumbaugh is scheduled to hear the case in July 2022.

Mitchell was hired in 2017 by Executive Bruce Dammeier. She served as a senior advisor to the executive on justice-related services. She oversaw the Department of Assigned Counsel, Clerk of the Superior Court and Medical Examiner.

Before her time at the county, Mitchell worked for Metro Parks Tacoma as the chief organizational development officer. She has college degrees from the University of Washington and Seattle University, and a law degree from Seattle University School of Law.

Mitchell, 61, said in the lawsuit she believed the county was inappropriately excluding minorities from the hiring process and violating fair hiring practices.

“When Ms. Mitchell voiced these concerns, she was sternly warned to not ‘interfere,’” the lawsuit said.

Mitchell’s said in the lawsuit that Pierce County violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

Mitchell is being represented by Meaghan Driscoll with Connelly Law Offices.

The lawsuit said the county unlawfully retaliated against her by stripping her of management roles “as a result of her opposition to racially discriminatory and unfair practices.”

“The race-based and sex-based harassment was sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of Ms. Mitchell’s employment and create a working environment which was intimidating, insulting, and abusive,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also accuses the county of discriminating against whistleblowers. Mitchell was fired nine days after filing a legal brief in her whistleblower complaint against the county.

State and county whistleblower laws protect public employees who expose wrongdoing from retaliation.

Mitchell filed a tort claim against the county seeking between $3 million and $5 million in damages in August.

WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT

In Mitchell’s whistleblower complaint to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, she claimed that top county officials intentionally concealed budget decisions from Pierce County Council and Dr. Mark Fajardo, the initial choice to replace the outgoing Medical Examiner, Dr. Thomas Clark, last year.

The week Fajardo was expected to be confirmed by the Pierce County Council in February 2020, he pulled his application. Mitchell said he was kept in the dark about the department’s budget and medical examiner staffers were refused weekly conversations with him.

In her 32-page summary judgment filed in July 2020 to the state in the whistleblower complaint, she described a “discriminatory and hostile culture within Pierce County” that is run by “politically-aligned, highly-compensated white men hired or retained by Dammeier.”

Mitchell called this group of top county officials “The Boys Club.”

Last year, the Executive Team included eight senior positions, two of which were people of color: Mitchell and Sarah Colleen Sotomish, a Native American woman holding the senior counsel tribal relations position.

Pierce County told The News Tribune in August her termination was entirely unrelated to the whistleblower complaint. County officials pointed to a 2019 independent investigation that examined many of the allegations covered in her claim and found no evidence to substantiate them.

Mitchell expressed concern in July 2018 that a newly proposed organizational change would be contrary to inclusion and equity goals, according to a memo provided by the county of the investigation.

Mitchell mentioned a constant reshuffling of positions in the chain of command at the Executive’s Office to reduce her and others’ authority and play ‘”’plantation politics’ where white men controlled the operations of the County much like a southern plantation.”

Pierce County said in a response to the whistleblower complaint that Mitchell “engages in this reckless smear despite the fact that the supposed unwarranted adverse change in her employment did not involve any change in pay, reduction in authority, demotion or disciplinary action; it similarly affected other members of the Executive Team ...”

Among other things, she also claimed that Pierce County’s whistleblower code imposes a higher burden of proof on whistleblowers to show that retaliation was “unwarranted.”

Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Mitchell in 2019 on the Clover Park Technical College Board of Trustees.

In 2019, she was recognized by the National Association for Mental Illness for her role in winning more than $9 million in funding for the County’s criminal justice diversion programs, known as “Trueblood” funding, the lawsuit stated.

This story was originally published on The News Tribune.