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Vashon fire agency to pay less than expected in gender discrimination lawsuit

After a round of negotiations with its insurance pool, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue is expected to pay $250,000 — rather than $751,000 — to cover the costs of a judgment from a gender discrimination lawsuit the department lost last year.

Initially, Enduris, a risk-sharing pool that covers government agencies in Washington, had told VIFR that its policy allowed the pool to pick up only a small portion of the financial judgment it was facing after it lost a lawsuit filed by Lanora Hackett.

But after the fire department's commissioners hired a lawyer to challenge Enduris' reading of their policy and made a presentation to the pool's board in August, Enduris decided the Vashon agency was right, said commission chair Neal Philip.

"We still have to pay something. We're still made to suffer. But it's not going to be the devastating hit that we thought it would be," Philip said.

Hank Lipe, chief at the fire department, praised the commissioners, who worked hard to get the insurance pool to view the situation differently. Two commissioners — Jan Nielsen and Philip — traveled with Lipe and the agency's lawyer to Spokane in August to present their case to the insurance pool, Lipe said. Nielsen and Lipe returned to Spokane in November.

"I thought the commissioners managed it very well. And the outcome was the best possible outcome for the Vashon taxpayers," Lipe said.

The Vashon fire department's lawyer called Philip earlier this week to let him know that the department will be billed $250,000. The final bill has not yet come before the commissioners for approval. Philip, however, said he feels certain the five-member board will agree to Enduris' new interpretation of the agency's policy.

"I don't think we're going to fight this anymore. I think this chapter will soon be over," Philip said.

Hackett, a volunteer firefighter and medic, sued the Vashon fire department last year, contending she was twice wrongfully passed over for a job and was repeatedly harassed and treated as an inferior. A King County Superior Court judge agreed, adding that the fire department had created a hostile workplace for women firefighters.

All told, the court ordered the Vashon agency to pay Hackett $800,000 — $500,000 for her attorneys' fees and $300,000 for lost wages and emotional distress. On top of that, the fire department faced its own legal bills of around $190,000, Philip said.

Initially, Enduris said the fire department would have to pay 40 percent of both its own legal fees and Hackett's legal fees, as well as all of her lost wages and a portion of the emotional distress judgment, Philip said. But the department argued that Enduris had misinterpreted the agency's policy and that the agency should have to pay all of her lost wages but only 20 percent of the legal fees and emotional distress damages, with a ceiling of $100,000.

Enduris agreed and recalculated the bill, Philip said.

"I don't want anyone to think we're happy because we escaped having to write a big check. It was a serious issue," Philip added. "But I think the department learned a lot of things as a result, some of them not pleasant. ... We're taking the issue of harassment very seriously."

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