Former Edmonds HR director’s wrongful dismissal case coming to trial Oct. 27

Debi Humann
Debi Humann


On May 19, 2014, legal teams for former Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper, current Mayor Dave Earling and the City of Edmonds filed separate requests for summary judgment to dismiss charges against them. The requests were based on a series of disputed interpretations of the facts and (in the cases of Cooper and Earling) the principle of qualified immunity of government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate…statutory or constitutional rights…”

On Aug. 19, Judge Marsha Pechman issued her ruling denying the request by the City of Edmonds. While she granted the part of Cooper’s request that was based on the principle of qualified immunity, she denied the remainder based on her finding that these claims “turn on genuinely disputed facts.” Earling’s qualified immunity claim was granted, which effectively removed him as a defendant.

The story has been updated to reflect that Earling is no longer included in this action.

After more than three years of controversy, charges, counter charges, court motions, hearings and filings, the case of former City of Edmonds Human Resources Director Debi Humann is scheduled for jury trial on Oct. 27 in U.S. Federal Court in Seattle.

Plaintiff Humann has named the City of Edmonds and former Mayor Mike Cooper as defendants. She alleges wrongful termination stemming from unlawful retaliation against her related to her cooperation with a 2011 Washington State Auditor’s Office investigation.

Prompted by an anonymous whistleblower complaint, the state auditor’s office investigation looked into alleged improprieties in use of public funds to pay Kim Cole, executive assistant to then-Mayor Cooper. (Cooper served as Edmonds’ mayor from 2010-11 after the city council appointed him to fill the remaining term of Gary Haakenson when Haakenson left to work for then-Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon.)

The complaint alleged that Cole, while serving as Cooper’s executive assistant, did not work all the hours listed on her time sheets at her $79,000-a-year job, claimed unearned vacation and sick leave, and that Cooper knew of this and approved payments anyway.

According to statements filed by Humann with the court, the State Auditor “made it clear…that she [Humann] was required to cooperate with the investigation and that state law would protect her from retaliation based on her cooperation.” Accordingly, on Sept. 21, 2011, Humann turned over Cole’s time sheets, signed and approved by Cooper, to the auditor.

The next day, according to court papers, Humann was called into Cooper’s office and summarily fired. In justification of his actions, Cooper publicly stated that he could no longer trust Humann. In response, she sued the City of Edmonds and Cooper in federal court alleging wrongful termination in violation of her civil rights. Her claim went on to state that this and other statements made by Cooper defamed and slandered her, damaged her reputation and caused her to suffer loss of future employment opportunities.

Cooper was defeated in the November 2011 election by current mayor Dave Earling, who took office effective Dec. 1 of that year.

Immediately upon becoming mayor, Earling dismissed Cole and reviewed Humann’s retaliation claim against Cooper. Subsequent to this review, he said in a news release that he “was not able to reach a conclusion” that Cooper had indeed retaliated against Humann. However, given what Earling called “various apparent misunderstandings” between Cooper and Humann, he said he was giving Humann “the benefit of the doubt,” and “…reinstating Ms. Humann as the Human Resources Director for the remainder of the year. At the end of the year, she will be laid off due to the City Council’s elimination of the position.”

The human resources director position had been eliminated by council in late November in what was characterized as a “cost-cutting measure,” the vote taken during Cooper’s final meeting with the council in which he presided as mayor.

On Dec. 22, 2011, Humann filed a second complaint naming Earling, asserting that this elimination of her job constituted retaliation, calling into question the timing and process by which the position was eliminated, and suggesting that he had joined in a “conspiracy” with Cooper to deprive her of her job in violation of her civil rights. Earling was removed as a defendant on Aug. 19. (See note above.)

The case was reviewed in 2012 by a Federal Administrative Law judge, who found sufficient grounds to order the City of Edmonds to pay Humann $91,177 for back pay and associated legal costs. The Edmonds City Council approved this payment in July 2013.

In a statement released regarding the payment, Humann’s attorney Cliff Freed said that while they commended the settlement, “we now look forward to clearing Debi’s name and vindicating her whistleblower activities in the federal lawsuit.”

“Debi had a stellar performance record as Human Resources Director,” the statement said. “She was trying to do what was right.  Months after she was fired, the City reinstated her and then almost immediately laid her off claiming it lacked funding for the HR Director position. The City must explain why, with over 200 employees, the council voted to eliminate funding for only one position—Debi’s position— when she had just filed a whistleblower claim seeking reinstatement for wrongful termination.”

A pre-trial hearing is set for Oct. 21 before Federal Judge Marsha Pechman, during which the legal teams will have a last opportunity to make final motions. Barring a continuance or dismissal resulting from these, the jury trial will begin on Oct. 27. The trial is expected to last several days.

— By Larry Vogel






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