He says ‘liar.’ She says ‘bully.’ A jury will settle Benton-Franklin harassment suit

Linda Robb, former administrator for Benton-Franklin Human Services, sued the two counties for wrongful termination, harassment and gender-based discrimination. The two week trial began last week in Walla Walla Superior Court.
Linda Robb, former administrator for Benton-Franklin Human Services, sued the two counties for wrongful termination, harassment and gender-based discrimination. The two week trial began last week in Walla Walla Superior Court. Tri-City Herald

A Walla Walla jury will decide if the former head of Benton-Franklin Human Services was terminated for failing to do her job or as a consequence of a pattern of harassment by an elected official.

Linda Robb sued Benton and Franklin counties for wrongful termination and harassment in 2016 after being fired less than a year into her role as manager of the bi-county human services department. She was fired on a 5-1 vote by the commissions of both counties.

While the suit names both counties, Robb’s Seattle attorney, Jack Sheridan, seeks to cast Benton County Chairman Shon Small as the architect of Robb’s brief, turbulent tenure.

The trial began Jan. 14 in Walla Walla Superior Court with the seating of a jury of eight women and six men, including two alternates, and is expected to wrap up early next week.

Robb is seeking compensation for lost pay and benefits, medical expenses and other expenses related to loss of enjoyment of life, humiliation, damage to her reputation, attorney fees and other damages. No specific amount was listed.

Sheridan argues that Robb ran afoul of Small when she challenged his efforts to privatize the crisis response unit, which handles mental health crises and was within her department.

Tuesday, Small had his chance to counter that narrative.

On the stand, he repeatedly called Robb a liar who spread damaging misinformation about the bi-county agency’s ability to keep the crisis response unit operating during a funding lapse.

Not long after she joined the human services agency in 2014, Robb emailed the six county commissions. She outlined the crisis and suggested the crisis response unit may have to close.

Small said that was untrue. The counties had $800,000 in one reserve account and $5 million in another to operate the crisis response unit.

“We had literally millions of dollars to keep it open,” he testified.

Privatizing crisis response

The email came at a sensitive time.

Small was in discussions with Lourdes Counseling to privatize crisis response. He had instructed trusted employees in the crisis response unit to keep the information from Robb even though she was responsible for managing the organization.

When she learned of the plan, she addressed the county commission, saying the proposal could be a conflict of interest for Lourdes.

The plan has since been executed. Lourdes took over in October 2016.

Although Robb worked for the six commissioners on the two commissions, Small directed her to communicate with him and his Franklin County Commission counterpart, Bob Koch.

On the stand, Small acknowledged he didn’t have the authority to limit which of Robb’s bosses she talked with. He defended the move, saying he wanted to ensure she passed along correct information.

‘Yellow flags’

Small said he considered several other issues “yellow flags,” but acknowledged he did not take steps to formally reprimand her.

In another instance, he said Robb did not inform him when she sussed out the identity of the crisis response employee who prematurely notified the detox unit that it was being shut down.

Small acknowledged what a heavily redacted email had already confirmed: He verbally berated Robb at an industry gathering within earshot of colleagues.

“I called her a compulsive liar,” he testified, adding that he also called her a “pathetic manager.”

Robb is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning.

Robb joined the bi-county agency in July 2014 after 15 years as clinical director for Catholic Family & Child Services in Richland. She was placed on administrative leave the following spring and formally fired that August.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck cast the lone no vote.

She was fired about a month after the Franklin County human resources manager, then working in the county prosecutor’s office, began investigating Robb’s hostile work environment complaint.

It was not clear from testimony in court Tuesday if the investigation continued after Robb was fired.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.