Former Hanford worker awarded $8 million in retaliation case

A Benton County Superior Court jury entered an $8.1 million judgment on Oct. 10 against Hanford contractor Mission Support Alliance for retaliation and discrimination.
A Benton County Superior Court jury entered an $8.1 million judgment on Oct. 10 against Hanford contractor Mission Support Alliance for retaliation and discrimination. Tri-City Herald

A Benton County Superior Court jury awarded $8.1 million Tuesday to a former Hanford manager for retaliation and discrimination.

Julie Atwood was forced to resign from Department of Energy contractor Mission Support Alliance in 2013.

She filed a civil lawsuit against the contractor and one of its vice presidents, Steve Young, who also is the mayor of Kennewick.

The jury found that Mission Support Alliance retaliated and discriminated against Atwood, and that Young aided and abetted.

The verdict includes $2.1 million in lost wages and benefits, covering both past and potential future wages. The remaining $6 million is for emotional harm.

The jury reached the verdict after deliberating less than a day, following nearly three weeks of testimony.

Atwood’s attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle, sought damages only from Mission Support Alliance and not Young.

Mission Support Alliance had no comment Tuesday. Young could not be reached.

Denise Ashbaugh, a Seattle attorney representing Mission Support Alliance and Young, argued during the trial that the company had good reason to want Atwood off its payroll.

Julie Atwood

Atwood was accused of creating a hostile work environment, abusing her relationship with an influential DOE official and timecard fraud.

But if that was the case, she would have been fired earlier or at least received counseling or progressive discipline, countered Sheridan during closing arguments on Monday. The timing of her forced resignation showed it was really to protect Young, he said.

Similar complaints were filed against Atwood in 2012 and 2013, Sheridan said. She was cleared both times, but was forced to resign anyway after a short investigation into the 2013 complaint, he said.

Atwood told investigators interviewing her after the 2013 complaint that they should be looking at Young, not her, Sheridan said.

She believed her comments were confidential when she told investigators that Young was conducting city of Kennewick business during hours he was supposed to be working for the Hanford contractor and was being paid with taxpayer money.

Sheridan claimed that Mission Support Alliance leaders were told of her comments about Young.

Three days later Atwood was told she was being fired, but she resigned in an attempt to protect her reputation and pension, Sheridan said.

She left the building distraught and in tears, pushing a wheelchair holding her personal belongings because no handcart was available. She was humiliated, Sheridan said.

Atwood developed an ongoing mental illness, with symptoms like those of post traumatic stress disorder, he said. She has not worked since.

Atwood received no written information about why she was targeted for termination, Sheridan said.

Steve Young 2017 mug
Steve Young

But in 2014 Mission Support Alliance prepared a record of events on the 2013 investigation, indicating she was cleared. A few weeks later another record of events was prepared that included additional information, saying she was cleared but adding criticism of Atwood, Sheridan said.

It was an “open secret” that Young did mayor work on a DOE computer at his DOE office during Hanford work hours, Sheridan said. Support staff kept his city schedule on his federal computer, Sheridan said.

Young also relied on his federal staff for city tasks, such as delivering flowers to city employees on a day to honor administrative support specialists, Sheridan told jurors.

Using government resources, including time and equipment, for non-federal uses is a violation of the False Claims Act, Sheridan said.

Mission Support Alliance had incentive to protect Young, by getting rid of Atwood, Sheridan argued.

Young played a valuable role for Mission Support Alliance and the Department of Energy because he also was mayor, Sheridan said. As mayor he could lobby Congress for more money for Hanford, which is good for both the Kennewick economy and Hanford contractors, Sheridan said.

DOE hires contractors, like Mission Support Alliance, to do the environmental cleanup work at the Hanford nuclear reservation, which produced weapons-program plutonium through the Cold War. Mission Support Alliance is responsible for support services across the site.

The plan to fire Atwood was in contrast with how men at Mission Support Alliance were disciplined, Sheridan told jurors.

(Atwood) simply did not perform her job very well.

Denise Ashbaugh, defense attorney

One male high-level official inappropriately touched the wife of one of the company’s truck drivers at a company event. The driver had to tell him to stop touching, texting and talking to his wife, but the official was not fired, Sheridan said in court.

In a second incident, a male worker who made derogatory comments about the company, affecting the relationship between DOE and Mission Support Alliance, was suspended for two weeks rather than be fired. And in a third case a male manager took his staff out to dinner, billing overtime and using a company car. He was suspended two weeks rather than fired, Sheridan said.

Sheridan said Mission Support Alliance changed when Pasco native Frank Armijo was named president in 2010, serving until 2015. The top management shifted from a mix of men and women to almost all men, many of whom were old friends of Armijo, Sheridan argued.

Ashbaugh, the defense attorney, told jurors that Atwood acted as though rules did not apply to her like they did to her co-workers and others.

She “cozied up” to powerful men at DOE, using that as protection when she did not follow the rules or failed to meet the expectations of Young, to whom she reported, Ashbaugh said.

“She simply did not perform her job very well,” Ashbaugh argued.

Atwood came to work late and then would be missing from her desk during the day, Ashbaugh said.

Atwood’s attorney said her job duties took her out of the office frequently and that she also had permission to work from home,

The second complaint against her was filed shortly after she returned from a last-minute vacation to Malaysia.

$2.1M requested for lost wages

$71,000 defense suggestion for lost wages

Sheridan said Atwood gave appropriate notice, discussing a possible trip a month before leaving, but defense attorneys claimed the first notice she gave was a text from the airport to a co-worker.

Atwood accused Young of timecard fraud only to deflect attention from herself, Ashbaugh said.

A check of Young’s work showed that he was putting in more than 40 hours a week for Mission Support Alliance, Ashbaugh said. When Young had mayoral duties during the work day, he made up the time after hours, she said.

Young was named in the lawsuit only to increase media coverage, the defense attorney argued.

Losing your job is difficult, but Atwood “made it into an event it was not,” Ashbaugh said. She has only applied for a dozen jobs in the four years since she left Mission Support Alliance, Ashbaugh said.

Atwood’s attorney asked for $2.1 million in lost wages, saying Atwood, who is now 62, would have worked until she was 70 and then become a consultant. He also asked for at least $4 million to $8 million for emotional harm.

Ashbaugh had argued if the jury did not rule in their favor, all Atwood should be owed is about $71,000, or pay for six months, which would cover the time she might have needed to find another job, she said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews