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County commissioner apologizes after $1.5 million verdict in harassment case

Benton and Franklin counties collaborate on several bicounty operations, including the superior court district, human services and juvenile justice.
Benton and Franklin counties collaborate on several bicounty operations, including the superior court district, human services and juvenile justice. Tri-City Herald file

A Franklin County commissioner has taken the unusual step of apologizing to a former employee after she won a $1.5 million lawsuit Thursday.

Commissioner Brad Peck extended apologies to Linda Robb, saying the verdict should send a message that employees need to be treated with respect.

Robb was hired in 2014 as human services administrator for Benton and Franklin counties. She sued for harassment and wrongful termination after she was fired the following August on a 5-1 vote of the two county commissions. Peck cast the lone no vote.

A Walla Walla County Superior Court jury returned a verdict in her favor after a two-plus week trial that began Jan. 14.

Peck said he had no problem with ending her employment, but he said she should have been dismissed with a letter of thanks and severance pay.

Peck laid blame with the other five commissioners: Benton County’s Jerome Delvin, Shon Small and Jim Beaver, and Franklin County’s Bob Koch and Rick Miller.

Miller is the only one who is no longer a commissioner, after losing his re-election bid last year. Benton County commissioners could not be reached Thursday or Friday to comment.

Koch has said he stands by his vote to terminate Robb for her refusal to fire an employee.

‘Not treated properly’

“I’m not apologizing out of any sense of guilt,” Peck said.

“I’m apologizing on behalf of the county for the fact that she was not treated properly. Obviously out of the six (commissioners), I’m the one who I believe did the proper thing and stood up for her,” he said. “So I wouldn’t want (Herald) readers to misconstrue that apology as somehow some form admission of guilt. If there’s any guilt, I think there’s five people in line ahead of me.”

Peck’s testimony in court played a role in the jury’s verdict, according to one juror.

Tiffany Norman, a first-time juror from Walla Walla, contacted the Tri-City Herald to say she believes Robb was to blame for the chaos and was not improperly terminated.

Norman said the jury was split 10-2. In civil cases, the decision does not need to be unanimous.

The Walla Walla County Clerk’s office confirmed Norman was one of 14 jurors, including two alternates, on the case.

‘Playing devil’s advocate’

Norman said the jury was swayed by Peck, who told the jury that decision was improper.

“I believe Peck was one of the main reasons the jury voted the way it did,” she said. “I think Peck was trying to play devil’s advocate.”

Suzanne Michael, a Seattle-based attorney who represented Benton County but not Franklin County during the trial, was interested in Norman’s comments to the Herald.

However, she declined to discuss the case or whether an appeal is planned.

Benton and Franklin counties collaborate on several bicounty operations, including the superior court district, human services and juvenile justice.

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.


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