Fire department hears final judgment numbers from discrimination lawsuit

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s liability for its alleged discrimination against a female firefighter could be nearly 20 percent more than previously announced, after a bill for legal fees came in higher than anticipated, officials said.

Instead of the $750,000 previously calculated, Vashon taxpayers could be responsible for nearly $900,000 of the judgment that orders the district to pay volunteer firefighter Lanora Hackett years’ worth of lost wages, an emotional distress award and her attorneys’ fees.

The exact numbers of the King County Superior Court decision were handed down last week, and while the financial judgment against the fire department was as expected, Hackett’s legal bill was $170,000 more, said board chair Neal Philip.

Officials had predicted the total judgment — including attorneys’ fees for both sides and the portion the insurance company will pay — would be about $1 million. Now, it could be closer to $1.2 million.

The fire department will pay more than two-thirds of the total judgment, with its insurance company picking up the rest of the tab, according to Philip’s calculations.

The fire board has hired an insurance coverage lawyer to make sure the department doesn’t pay more than it should, said Chief Hank Lipe.

The bill for Hackett’s lawyers isn’t final, however, and the entirety of the judgment could be thrown out if the fire department appeals.

The fire board plans to convene this week to discuss whether it will appeal the decision, Philip said. A new trial must be requested by Tuesday, May 26; they have until June 12 to appeal.

The decision about appealing is one some community members have been paying close attention to. At a public meeting April 28, Islanders were vocal on both sides of the issue.

Some, like Karen du Four des Champs, who has led more than 100 sexual harassment trainings, said they’d like to see the department put this suit behind it.

“Because there’s been a pattern of misconduct with the department, I believe appealing is not the best use of their time or resources,” she said. “You cannot change a culture like Chief Lipe is trying to do when they’re still embroiled in their past.”

Philip, however, said there may be cause for an appeal.

“It sounds like there are significant issues (within the trial) that could give us reason to appeal,” he said.

Because of the pending judgment, the Island fire department has put every improvement project on hold, Lipe said, to keep as much in its $1.5 million general reserve as possible.

“We’re just keeping the place operating,” he said.

Radio upgrades, the purchase of a new emergency generator at the Penny Farcy Memorial Training Center and electrical work at the north-end fire station were approved in this year’s budget but have not occurred.

“I haven’t done anything, nor will I, until the board decides what they’re going to be doing,” Lipe said.

The general reserve is intended for “unanticipated cash expenses for emergency operations,” he said.

Paying the judgment “would take a pretty big chunk,” Philip noted.

He said the taxpayer’s portion of the decision could be close to $900,000, “which makes it even more important that we appeal if there is good reason to do so.”

The discrepancy between what VIFR expected to pay Hackett’s lawyers and the amount they’re seeking cannot be easily explained. Philip said the department based its initial figures for Hackett’s legal bills on numbers from Hackett’s lawyers. But Hackett’s lawyer Kathryn Goater said her fees — $493,000 — are calculated based on the amount of hours she and others in her firm worked on the case, and she’s unsure how VIFR could have tallied those hours in advance.

Goater and her partner Rebecca Roe, who both have decades of legal experience, charge $425 an hour, she said — “quite within the norm.”

But both Philip and VIFR lawyer Michael Bolasina said the numbers seem high.

“Obviously, it sounds like a shockingly high rate, but experienced attorneys can be very expensive,” said Bolasina, who is charging VIFR $200 per hour for his legal services.

Still, he said he “would not be surprised” if the court awards Hackett’s lawyers the amount they are seeking in fees.

“The judge will do her own calculation of what is reasonable, and it’s likely to be at or near that,” he said.

Bolasina said it’s likely he has worked as many hours on the case as has Hackett’s legal team. His bill to VIFR, he added, will likely be $150,000 to $200,000.

“We’ll have the opportunity to argue about whether it’s reasonable,’” Philip said of the plaintiff’s legal fees.

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