VIFR board may appeal discrimination lawsuit decision

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, facing a potential out-of-pocket judgment of more than $750,000, is considering appealing a recent King County Superior Court ruling that it discriminated against Islander Lanora Hackett.

An appeal could be in order, Board Chair Neal Philip and Chief Hank Lipe said, if the insurance company’s preliminary analysis — showing the department paying two-thirds of the expected $1.07 million judgment — proves correct.

Lipe, in an interview Monday, said he had expected the department would end up paying about 20 percent of the judgment, with the insurance company picking up the rest. He was shocked, he said, when he got a spreadsheet from the fire department’s insurance company last month that put VIFR’s burden at $751,466, or 66 percent.

“We said, ‘Holy cow, what happened?’” he recalled.

Since then, he said, the board has held three executive sessions to discuss the case and is now considering hiring a lawyer to determine if the insurance company’s analysis of the department’s policy is correct. During those meetings, Lipe said, he has talked to the board as a taxpayer, arguing that an appeal could be necessary to protect the financial interests of Islanders.

“I told the board that we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that the damages that are paid are paid with integrity ... and are correct,” he said.

Philip, himself a lawyer, said that potential errors at the trial court level — rulings over what could be admitted as evidence — will also be considered as the board wrestles with the decision of whether to appeal. He declined to be more specific about the alleged errors.

“Personally, I want it all over with,” he added. “If I could do it and if it weren’t such a huge amount of money, ... I would say, ‘Let’s just pay the judgment and drop it.’ ... But we have a responsibility to the people of Vashon and Maury. We can’t just push that aside.”

Hackett, who in court documents said the lawsuit had taken a significant emotional toll on her, declined comment when reached Monday. Her lawyer did not return a telephone call.

But others who have paid close attention to the case urged the department to put an end to the litigation.

Hilary Emmer, who was outspoken during a recent Vashon-Maury Island Community Council meeting that Lipe and Philip attended, said she was troubled to hear the board was leaning towards an appeal. Such a move could ultimately rack up even higher legal fees, she said, adding, “I’d rather that our tax dollars go to Lanora Hackett than to a lawyer.”

Karen du Four des Champs, a human resources professional who wrote a commentary piece about the lawsuit for The Beachcomber, also expressed dismay.

“An appeal is costly and time-consuming. ... It impacts morale. It impacts recruiting. It has costs beyond the dollar,” she said.

“We’ve already lived through this,” she added. “We’ve already drawn our lines in the sand. Why recreate a circus around this? ... Let’s move on.”

The board plans to discuss the issue with community members at its next meeting, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 28. The meeting will be held at the Penny Farcy Memorial Training Center.

Philip said he wants to hear what the community thinks.

“We want to take as much time as we can to get as many opinions as possible ... so that we get a full picture of what the community thinks. ... The decision that we make has to be made on facts and legal analysis along with the feelings of the community,” he said.

Superior Court Judge Cheryl Carey ruled in Hackett’s favor in February, saying from the bench that the former insurance broker and active VIFR volunteer was routinely harassed, treated as inferior and wrongfully denied a job. Hackett was awarded $150,000 in emotional distress damages, as well as six years’ pay and coverage of her legal fees. The judge’s decision has not been formally entered as a court record, however; until it is, the exact amount of the judgment owed Hackett is not clear — nor can the fire department make a decision about whether to appeal, Philip said.

Lipe, meanwhile, said a decision to appeal doesn’t negate the department’s responsibility to address what he said has been personnel problems at the fire department, a small unit that draws upon the services of both paid and volunteer firefighters.

Last month, Lipe hired Janice Corbin, a human relations specialist, to begin to work with the department to address a range of problems that have plagued the unit in recent years. One of the first things Corbin did, at Lipe’s request, is establish a hotline VIFR personnel can call if they’re concerned about a human resources issue at the department.

As a result of that hotline, the department is now investigating two complaints, he said.

“We’ve recognized what the judge told us, and we’re addressing it,” Lipe said.

Board gathers input

A public meeting to discuss a potential appeal of the lawsuit will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 28, at the Penny Farcy Memorial Training Center.

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