Hanford

Judge upholds $8.1 million verdict against Hanford contractor

An $8.1 million jury verdict against a Hanford contractor was upheld on Jan. 10 after a fall trial held at the Benton County Justice Center.
An $8.1 million jury verdict against a Hanford contractor was upheld on Jan. 10 after a fall trial held at the Benton County Justice Center. Tri-City Herald

A judge refused to reduce the $8.1 million verdict against a Department of Energy Hanford nuclear reservation contractor and one of its employees, the former Kennewick mayor, in a 56-page ruling on Wednesday.

Mission Support Alliance and manager Steve Young also had asked for a new trial, but were denied.

Neither the $2.1 million award for lost past and future wages, nor the $6 million award for emotional harm “shocks my conscience,” Judge Doug Federspiel said in the ruling. He is a Yakima County Superior Court judge who was tapped to hear the civil case in Benton County Superior Court.

“The size of each of the two verdicts is, in my opinion, within the bounds of the evidence presented,” he said.

Julie Atwood, a former manager at Mission Support Alliance, filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination, retaliation and wrongful discharge.

She said she was forced out when she told company investigators that they should be looking into the actions of her boss, Young, as they were interviewing her about a complaint filed against her.

$2.1 million past and future wages and benefits verdict

$6 million emotional harm verdict

She believed her comments were confidential when she said that Young, then the mayor of Kennewick, was conducting business for the city on hours he was supposed to be working for the Hanford contractor and getting paid with federal tax dollars.

The investigation cleared Atwood of wrongdoing, but she was told she was being fired, anyway. She resigned hoping to save her pension and professional reputation, said her attorney, Jack Sheridan of Seattle.

An attorney for Mission Support Alliance and Young, Denise Ashbaugh of Seattle, argued that the $2.1 million judgment for direct economic damages could only be explained by “passion and prejudice.”

But an economic damage expert for Atwood computed her damages at that amount, Federspiel said. As long as the damages awarded by the jury are within the range of evidence and consistent with the plaintiff’s expert’s computations, the judgment can stand, he said.

The defense also argued that the $6 million jury verdict for emotional harm was unreasonable, suggesting that Atwood’s distress lasted only one day, the date of her termination.

But plaintiffs provided evidence for the jury that Atwood had endured mistreatment due to the corporate culture of Mission Support Alliance before her termination. Evidence also was presented of long-lasting emotional harm and physical side effects, which the jury evidently believed, the judge said.

The evidence, if believed by the jury, indicates that her mental suffering went far beyond ‘simple disappointment’ from losing her job.

Judge Doug Federspiel

Among evidence was that the loss of her job caused Atwood depression and anxiety and that she felt “broken,” isolated from work and her work friends, blacklisted in the Hanford community and robbed of the simple joys of life, the judge said.

“There was testimony about … the extraordinary shame, embarrassment and humiliation she endured in being escorted out of the building for all to see, moving the contents of her office out to her car in a wheelchair,” the judge wrote.

“The evidence, if believed by the jury, indicates that her mental suffering went far beyond ‘simple disappointment’ from losing her job,” he said.

The defense also had argued that Sheridan had failed to make the case that Atwood was discriminated against because she was a woman, relying largely on testimony of other employees at the Hanford contractor.

The judge found that gender discrimination did not have to be the only, or even the main, motivation in the decision to fire Atwood.

There rarely is direct evidence in the form of a “smoking gun” to prove gender discrimination, the judge said. Many cases are frequently based on circumstantial evidence.

In this case, there was an investigation launched by Mission Support Alliance into allegations of discrimination based on gender.

The investigation, along with evidence of the corporate culture at the contractor and some alleged off-color gender-based comments by Young, provided sufficient circumstantial evidence of gender discrimination to allow the issue to be submitted to the jury, Federspiel said.

Mission Support Alliance and Young now have 30 days to appeal the verdict to the Washington state Court of Appeals.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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