3 file sex discrimination claims against WSU Tri-Cities

Three women have filed discrimination claims against Washington State University Tri-Cities over allegations they were mistreated by a former administrator.

The three claim WSU and Jaime Contreras, the former director of student affairs on the Richland campus, subjected them to sexual discrimination and retaliation.

Anna Mitson, Christina Davis and Johan Curtiss each are asking for $1 million in damages. Mitson also is claiming racial discrimination.

Contreras, who resigned this spring, was the subject of an investigation by WSU's civil rights office earlier this year after being accused of harassment, discrimination and slander by several subordinates, including the three women who filed the joint tort claim.

Investigators sent from WSU's main campus in Pullman issued a report in March that substantiated the employees' accusations and recommended WSU take "corrective action" with Contreras.

He resigned shortly after.

But by then Mitson had already left her position at the office of student affairs. She later told the Herald that "the damage was already done."

And Davis resigned soon after Contreras did, saying at the time that morale in the office had sunk so low that being there was "stressful and exhausting," even after his departure.

The two claim that the treatment they were subjected to amounted to a "constructive discharge," which means work conditions were so intolerable that any reasonable person would have to quit.

They suffered loss of income because of their de facto firing, the two women claim. Curtiss may face the same constructive discharge in the future, the claim states.

Curtiss still works in the WSU student affairs office as an assistant director. She also is a candidate for the West Richland City Council in Tuesday's primary election.

Mitson and Curtiss declined to talk to the Herald about the claim. Davis could not be reached.

Under state law, WSU has 60 days to respond before the women can file a lawsuit.

Their attorney, George Fearing of Kennewick, said his clients are prepared to sue if necessary.

WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor Vicky Carwein was not available this week to discuss the allegations. A prepared statement from WSU said it could not discuss the claim because it is an ongoing legal matter.

"This situation has been difficult for our campus community ... and we need to let the process run its course," the statement said.

Contreras did not respond to messages left on his voicemail at home. Earlier this year he told the Herald, "Things have been said about me that are not true. Nonetheless, ... there are certain battles in life you choose not to fight."

The joint claim alleges Contreras created a "hostile work environment" and that WSU administrators "took no steps to end the hostile work environment."

As a result, the women say they suffered "emotional distress, humiliation, injury to reputation and other pain and suffering."

It says that Contreras' conduct began shortly after he started at WSU in June 2008 and continued until he resigned.

The women claim they reported the problems to WSU human resource officials and other administrators. They accuse WSU administrators of not correcting Contreras' behavior, as well as retaliating against them for reporting the misconduct.

The claim does not describe how WSU allegedly retaliated.

As the Herald reported in May, Contreras was accused of verbally abusing subordinates and students by calling them racially derogatory names. He also is alleged to have made sexual remarks about staff and students, according to the investigators' report.

WSU administrators have said they addressed the misconduct as soon as they knew about it.

But employees last spring said they complained about Contreras "until blue in the face" before investigators from Pullman showed up on the Richland campus.