Friday, January 10, 2014
WALLA WALLA — A former Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office employee was awarded a $235,000 settlement late last year after alleging ongoing discrimination and retaliation on the job.
Lucille Poirier, a County Jail employee for 10 years who was fired in 2012, filed a tort claim seeking $750,000 in damages in April 2013. She said she suffered several work-related injuries during her tenure but was “targeted” after she filed claims with the state Department of Labor and Industries.
The settlement was finalized Oct. 30, after the Washington Counties Risk Pool, a statewide insurance cooperative for county governments, reviewed the claim. County officials, including Sheriff John Turner, stated in the wake of the settlement that the cooperative’s decision to pay was based on how much a potential trial could cost.
“We’re aware of the allegations that Ms. Poirier made. We’re not necessarily in agreement with them,” Turner said. “The decision to settle the claim was based on financial considerations.”
The risk pool, which manages the county’s insurance, paid the $235,000 to Poirier. Walla Walla County paid an additional $50,000 in legal fees to satisfy its required deductible, according to Walla Walla County Commissioner Perry Dozier, who was commission chairman in 2013.
“It’s been a fairly costly year,” Dozier said in a December interview, referring also to legal fees the county has paid for ongoing labor negotiations with the Walla Walla Commissioned Deputies Association, and an arbitration hearing in which sheriff’s Sgt Bill White, who was Turner’s opponent in the 2010 election, contested discipline actions taken against him in 2012.
An independent arbitrator found in favor of the county in the White grievance, but contract negotiations with the deputies association has stalled. It is scheduled for binding arbitration later this year.
The Union-Bulletin received documents relating to the Poirier settlement in late December 2013 after filing a public information request. Her original claim states that over a period of time “Walla Walla County employees repeatedly discriminated against Ms. Poirier, creating a hostile working environment, threatening her and retaliating against her for her L&I claims.”
Poirier said in a 2012 interview that she was first injured in 2007 due to poor workplace ergonomics. She added she became a target following the injury claim and was subjected to increasing scrutiny. Poirier contacted the U-B after the Sheriff’s Office placed White on administrative leave, claiming she had been subjected to a similar style of internal investigation before she was fired.
“I was investigated for L&I fraud and cleared by the state.” Poirier said, adding the retaliation didn’t stop there.
“I had a good paying job and I was supporting my kids on my own, so I shut up and took it,” she said, adding she kept lobbying for improved ergonomic workstations at the jail.
Poirier suffered a second injury in June 2011.
“I was backing up one of my fellow officers who was attacked by an inmate,” she said. She was kicked in the head and ribs, suffering a concussion and a shoulder injury as a result, she said.
That second injury triggered recurring painful migraine headaches, Poirier said. She said she suffered with headaches for some time, but they became significantly worse following the attack.
“I had pretty good control of the headaches before I was assaulted,” Poirier said.
Poirier said her headaches became severe, and even with months of physical therapy that helped her manage bouts with migraines, she continued to struggle.
On Feb. 12, 2012, Poirier said she was working with a full crew at the jail when she developed a headache. She rested in the control booth for a short time and by midmorning thought she had the headache under control, she said. The headache returned at about 1 p.m.
Poirier said she again laid down on the control room floor near the end of her shift to relieve tension in her neck and back, which she claims caused the migraine. One of her co-workers then took her to the doctor because she was too ill to drive, she said.
“I did lay down longer than I probably should have,” Poirier conceded, but added that jail staff don’t get regularly scheduled breaks so instead take breaks when time is available. “As long as I didn’t exceed my state allowed break time, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Medical records released to the U-B show that Poirier did visit her doctor that afternoon and was given a prescription narcotic painkiller for a migraine headache.
In the following months, Poirier was subject to an internal investigation for alleged dereliction and neglect of her duties, that she had violated jail policy, and that she had exhibited conduct unbecoming to a jail sergeant.
Following the investigation, Poirier said she was offered a separation agreement she declined to sign. She was then fired.
In its findings related to the investigation, Turner wrote he felt Poirier had lied during the investigation and had refused to take responsibility for her actions.
“Corr. Sgt. Poirier denied all the recommended sustained allegations.” Turner wrote. “She contended that her conduct was not a security and safety issue.”
Later in the same document, Turner added that “one disturbing aspect of this meeting was Corr. Sgt. Poirier’s complete lack of recognition that any of her conduct could have possibly been unacceptable. Many of her excuses lacked logic.”
After she was fired she applied for unemployment benefits, Poirier said, but had to defend her claim before an administrative law judge against allegations by Turner that she was ineligible for benefits.
The judge, Rosemary L. Otto, on Sept. 13, 2012, found in favor of Poirier and ruled her eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
“The parties’ testimony conflicted on material points,” Otto wrote in her findings. “In resolving these conflicts, the reliability of the evidence was considered, as well as the logical persuasiveness of the parties positions. Under the circumstances, the claimant’s direct testimony is more reliable and therefore more logically persuasive than the employer’s hearsay evidence.”
Otto noted that Poirier “probably should have taken official sick time on Feb. 20,” but that she felt Poirier “was not discharged due to deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior.”
Turner, who attended the hearing, said he had limited knowledge of the unemployment claim issue as it was referred to the Walla Walla County Personel and Risk Manager.
“To my knowledge the two (the settlement and the unemployment claim) had nothing to do with each other,” Turner said Wednesday.
Luke Hegdal can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8326.