Former WSU Tri-Cities employee awarded $100,000 in lawsuit

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJune 18, 2013 

A former employee of Washington State University Tri-Cities received $100,000 in damages from the school after a jury agreed she had to work in a hostile work environment created by a former supervisor.

Anna Mitson, along with her former colleagues Johan Curtiss and Christina Davis Stevenson, claimed discrimination, harassment and bad working conditions under Jaime Contreras, the school's director of student affairs from 2008-11.

The three women no longer work for the university.

The jury's decision followed a two-week trial in Benton County Superior Court.

Contreras was dropped from the lawsuit earlier in exchange for giving a 41/2-hour taped deposition. He did not appear at the trial.

Mitson's award includes WSU covering her attorney fees, which could add tens of thousands of dollars to what the university must pay. The final amount will be determined at a later hearing, said Kennewick attorney Andrea Clare, who represented the three women.

Washington Assistant Attorney General Paul Triesch, who represented WSU, was not available for comment. WSU Tri-Cities officials referred requests for comment to the attorney general's office.

Jurors did not award any damages to Curtiss or Stevenson. The jury also rejected Mitson's and Curtiss' claims that they were forced out of their positions by the university and that WSU retaliated against Curtiss for reporting concerns to officials.

Clare said jurors later told her they felt compelled to rule against the bulk of her clients' claims, despite believing their testimony, because the harassment did not meet specific requirements given by the court to prove discrimination or hostile working conditions.

Clare said her clients were disappointed by the verdict but found some vindication in their case going to court.

"They are somewhat satisfied because the jury indicated they believed them and were outraged at WSU's lack of action," Clare said.

Mitson, Curtiss and Stevenson filed their civil lawsuit against the university, as well as Contreras and his wife, in October 2011. They previously filed discrimination claims with the university against Contreras, which brought WSU investigators to the campus.

The investigators' report substantiated claims Contreras referred to employees and students with derogatory racial terms, such as "Tokyo Rose" and "Nip," derogatory terms for people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and "Kunta Kinte," the name of a black slave in the novel Roots. Other complaints said Contreras pitted staff against each other in the office and he shared confidential information.

The investigators recommended the university take corrective action with Contreras and he resigned shortly after. University officials have said they acted on allegations of Contreras' misconduct as soon as they knew about it.

Clare said she and her clients had excellent facts supporting their claims of a hostile work environment and the university failed to act.

In addition to testimony from her clients, WSU President Elson S. Floyd and the deposition from Contreras, there also was testimony from other university officials and current and former employees, as well as the deposition of former WSU Tri-Cities chancellor Vicky Carwein, who was Contreras' supervisor. She left about a year ago to be chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne.

Clare said there was difficulty in securing Contreras' deposition, because he is living in Chicago and could not be compelled to return to testify.

"It took a long time to locate him," Clare said. "The state was not forthcoming with that information," adding she had the court compel state officials to provide Contreras' address.

Mitson received damages largely because of evidence showing Contreras spread a rumor within the office and among officials at the Richland campus that she was having an extramarital affair with a student, Clare said.

Clare said the jury's interpretation of instructions given to them by the court prevented them from awarding Curtiss and Stevenson damages. The instructions required evidence of a hostile work environment show Contreras' actions contributed to the office's perception of employees.

Clare said several jurors later expressed sympathy for all three clients.

Clare said her clients will have about a month to decide whether to appeal part of the ruling after there is a judgment on how much of their attorney fees the university must pay.

WSU Tri-Cities employee Dallas Barnes lost his $2.4 million lawsuit against the school in August 2012. He alleged that Contreras had used derogatory racial terms to refer to him.

Barnes, who is black, also claimed he was wrongfully passed over for promotion and discriminated against.

w Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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