Debi Humann wins lawsuit against city, Cooper — awarded more than $1 million in damages

Debi Humann hugs her daughter Jen outside of the courtroom after the verdict is returned.
Debi Humann hugs her daughter Jen outside the courtroom after the verdict is returned.

Former City of Edmonds Human Resources Director Debi Humann was greeted by hugs and smiles from family outside the downtown Seattle federal courtroom Friday afternoon after a 10-person jury unanimously awarded her more than $1 million in her civil suit against the City of Edmonds and former Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper.

“It’s been three long difficult years for my family, for me and for the law firm,” a tearful Humann said. “I’m just glad it’s over and I’m really hoping that this clears my name, which is what I wanted.”

Humann’s boyfriend of five years, Bob Uptagrafft, and her daughter Jen, were all smiles after the verdict, and gave Humann large hugs after she left the courtroom.

“Now we can get our lives back,” Uptagrafft said, adding that relationships between Humann and City of Edmonds employees had been frozen during the past three years since she was fired and legal actions were underway.

After a three‐week trial, the five-man, five-woman jury returned a verdict finding in favor of Humann on all claims, and awarded her a total of $1,035,351. The jury found Humann was wrongfully terminated for reporting misuse of public funds and was retaliated against for filing a complaint seeking her job back. The jury also found that Mayor Cooper defamed Ms. Humann for statements he made in the press following her firing.

Humann was represented by Beth Barrett Bloom and Jillian M. Cutler of Frank Freed Subit & Thomas, in Seattle.

Humann has named the City of Edmonds and former Mayor Mike Cooper as defendants in the federal civil case, citing 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.

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.

  1. Congradulations Ms. Humann. It is good to see the Feds are doing their job and JUSTICE prevails!

    We are a country of laws and that is what keeps us civilized. Our laws work for everyone.

  2. Congradulations Ms. Humann. No one should be treated like this in public service and justice prevailed. Thank goodness for our justice system!!

  3. As one of the jurors in the trial, I fully believe that we made the right decision and that justice DID prevail. That being said, the decision was not as easy to come by than some may assume and was certainly not made in haste. Debi, if you see this post I want you to know more than anything that we all found that you did nothing wrong. I would have no problem trusting you and I have no doubt in your ability to fully perform the duties of a Director of Human Resources. Debi, please read Numbers 6:24-26.

    1. Now that the journey of the last three years is over, I want to say how immensely appreciative I am for all the city employees, citizens, and others who have supported me and my family. Your generous comments mean the world to me. This has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do and just seeing it through to the end, at times, seemed impossible. But we made it and I now have the name clearing that I wanted. Words do not express how grateful I am to the hard work of the jury. They took three weeks out of their personal lives, from their jobs and their families, to hear a very complicated case with hundreds of exhibits. They asked amazingly perceptive questions and they did the job. It was not easy for them and I will be forever grateful to them for giving me back my reputation and my professional self-respect. Thank you again and as we move quickly to the holidays, my best to you all.

      1. Congratulations Debi. I cannot imagine how hard the last three years must have been on you and your family. Best of luck on all your new adventures.

    2. Wonderful for you, a juror, to give your insights and thoughts on this matter. Ms. Humann has endured much, and your statement says it all. It also gives the readers here a way to think about what happened, how and to whom and why. Great comment.

  4. I don’t understand why no one at the city realized that this woman would prevail and settle before this went to court. Look at all the countless hours spent by people working for the city testifying, discussing, and thinking about this issue. Shame on the people responsible for causing this issue and perpetuating it. Some soul searching should go on to get a better culture operating in our town government.

  5. A sad day Indeed. And do we have to cover this Million dollar settlement for Coopers bonehead actions or does he have personal liability?

  6. The takeaway here: Don’t wrongfully fire someone who (as an HR director) knows her rights & remedies!

    To answer Mike Echelbarger, according to city officials, bonehead decisions like this are covered by the City’s insurance & there is no personal expense to our former mayor. More’s the pity. Our premiums are going to go up & the person who caused all this grief is not held responsible.

    1. Chris — Ihis suit also was against former Mayor Cooper personally so it was my understanding there is some personal liability. I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.

    2. Chris, I wanted to correct my earlier comment, as I learned more when talking with the city’s attorney today. These claims are all covered by the state risk pool, including those against former Mayor Cooper. The only claim that would have held him personally liable is one that was dismissed by the judge before it went to the jury.

  7. This case is an extreme example of abuse of power. I laud Ms. Humann for having the strength of character to stand up, not only for herself, but to also blaze a path for other government employees. Those elected officials and top municipal executives who use their position of power to further their personal desires and disregard state statute, municipal code or policies must be challenged by their staff. All too often government employees fail to challenge a boss with a self-serving view of power who is clearly out of bounds, because of the potential personal cost and fear of losing their job.
    Oftentimes self-serving individuals strive to attain the top position because they believe that once given a position of authority, they will get the respect and social status they feel they deserve. This type of individual is one that cultivates submissive followers who are then promoted and entrusted to be blindly obedient.
    Our government system is one of checks and balances. I’m relieved that this incredibly obvious abuse of power was not allowed to stand. Thank you to Ms. Humann for enduring this battle and doing it with such strength, grace and honor.

  8. Congratulations Debi. During the eight years we worked together, you consistently helped me with difficult personnel issues in a very professional manner. I knew you would prevail in this matter. Firing you for the reasons given was totally inappropriate and I’m glad the jury saw through the BS. Keep your head up and moving forward!

  9. I add my congratulations. Anyone know how the outcome affects Ms. Cole? And now an opportunity to bring ‘good government’ to Edmonds, top to bottom. It also would be good for managers to current on their federal and state personnel responsibilities and the consequences for mishbehavin’.

  10. Mr. McGrath brings up an interesting concept. It is impossible to know every decision Mayor Earling and the City Council made related to continuing and/or settling this multi-year legal action. I imagine the concept of what they thought was in the best interest of the “Municipal Corporation” was discussed behind closed doors in Executive Session.

    We do know that the City offered Ms. Humann $33k to settle the whistleblower complaint in early February of 2013. That was discussed in the following My Edmonds News Article:

    We also know that Edmonds paid $91K to fired former HR director Debi Humann as reported in My Edmonds News on July19, 2013. That article concluded as follows:

    Edmonds City Attorney Jeff Taraday said in a statement that “it would be inappropriate for the city to comment further on details of pending litigation; however, in light of Ms. Humann’s attorney’s comments, I will say that local legislators make difficult decisions every day.”

    “The city’s decision to resolve the administrative proceeding was in no way an admission that Ms. Humann’s termination was unlawful,” Taraday said. “It merely allowed the city to more expeditiously defend the federal lawsuit that Humann filed against the city and its mayors.”

    Now we know the outcome of that federal lawsuit. I don’t think we know whether or not the City tried to settle the federal lawsuit. We also don’t know if the federal lawsuit decision will be appealed.

  11. From MRSC:

    Trust in government is essential. The public wants to know that the decisions government makes are based on facts that are available to be reviewed, and that debate is open to the public. Perhaps even more important, the public does not want the decisions of its elected officials to be based upon factors that are unknown.

    The decisions of our elected officials related to the Debi Humann federal lawsuit are likely based upon factors that are at least partially unknown. Citizens will have a better idea of why the City approached the federal lawsuit the way it did if and when the related Executive Session Meeting Minutes are made public. I hope they will be.

    From Page 8 of the June 5, 2007 Edmonds City Council Approved Minutes:

    “With regard to the allegation that something occurred in Executive Session, Mr. Snyder advised once the process was concluded, all Executive Session minutes would be available to the public.

    The following discussion related to recording Executive Sessions and/or releasing Executive Session minutes is found in the November 27, 2007 Edmonds City Council Approved Minutes:

    Councilmember Plunkett commented his understanding was that once an executive session issue was resolved, the City made the minutes of the executive session public. He asked whether the proposed legislation would prevent the publication of the minutes for two years. City Clerk Sandy Chase answered Edmonds was unusual as they maintained minutes of executive sessions; the majority of cities did not. Currently, once an issue was resolved, the minutes become public record upon receipt of a public records request.

    Hopefully all the related Executive Session Meeting Minutes will be made public once this legal process is totally concluded. I imagine it is too early for that as appeals are possible.

    The release of the Executive Session Meeting Minutes will do more than just provide information related to factors that are currently unknown. The Executive Session Meeting Minutes may provide valuable insight into how the City decides what is in the best interest of the “Municipal Corporation” and who really makes that decision.

  12. My coworker was on this jury, he told me that Cooper is on the hook for 400k, and laughed about the city council, the former mayor, and his assistant……

  13. Related to pending litigation and/or the ever popular “potential” litigation – Who plays a role in deciding what is in the best interest of the “Municipal Corporation”?

    Four (4) parties come to mind:

    1. The Mayor
    2. The City Council
    3. The City Attorney
    4. The Washington Cities Insurance Authority and its legal counsel. (Washington Cities Insurance Authority is a self insured municipal risk pool, offering liability, property and specialty insurance programs as well as risk management services to municipal entities in Washington state.)

    A decision on whether or not to appeal is pending. WHO will make this decision?

    If it is the City Council, they will have to vote to do so in Open Session. I don’t think it will be the City Council as I don’t recall a City Council vote in the first place to “defend the federal lawsuit that Humann filed against the city and its mayors” (Mr. Taraday’s words in quotes).

    If it is not the City Council, that leaves the Mayor, City Attorney and WCIA.

    I don’t think the City Attorney has the authority to make this type of decision. If not, that leaves the Mayor and WCIA.

    We already have the Mayor’s statement in the press that it is time to put this issue behind us and get back to running the City. However, Attorney Jayne Freeman has stated that they have yet to decide whether to appeal.

    It will be fascinating to watch this process. Hopefully we will get a window into how these decisions are made and who ultimately makes the decision.

    I have long been of the opinion that what is in the best interest of the “Municipal Corporation” is not always the same as what is in the best interest of WCIA’s insurance pool.

  14. And if the insurance is indeed paying for the judgement, it isn’t “free” to the City or the tax payers at all. It will increase the rates the City pays for insurance. The amount of time legal hours and staff time to testify are just not direct costs. It was an expensive adventure. The costs just aren’t direct but they are considerable.

  15. Great points, the direct and indirect costs are very significant and it is next to impossible to measure the negative impact of this type of situation. A comment was made above that the jury laughed about the city council, the former mayor, and his assistant.

    It is very difficult to rebuild trust and reputation. I think there is much work needed in this area. The cost related to lack of trust and respect must be huge.

    The following is from a December, 2012 My Edmonds News article:

    Heard an annual report from City Attorney Jeff Taraday of the Lighthouse Law Group, who went over the cases that were still pending, including one with Precision Earthworks over claims on the Haines Wharf Project and two cases involving former Human Resources Director Debbie Humann — one a whistleblower case and the other regarding the council’s budget action to end her job. Taraday indicated it wasn’t likely these cases would be settled in the immediate future. He also mentioned that the cases involving Kimberly Cole, former administrative assistant to ex-Mayor Mike Cooper, had also been resolved. Taraday then went over the members of the Lighthouse team working with the City of Edmonds and each of their respective duties. He said that Lighthouse had put in approximately 3,359 hours so far this year on city business — 14 percent of those hours on City Council business and an estimated 50 percent on litigation issues.

  16. The October 1, 2012 – September 30, 2013 City Attorney annual report indicated that the Humann v. Edmonds issue used up 278 hours of City Attorney time. This was just under 9% of the 3,104 hours worked by the City attorney that year.

    I don’t believe the October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014 City Attorney Annual Report has been presented yet. Maybe I missed it. There will be more hours in the October 1, 2014 – September 30, 2015 report….even more (I imagine) if the decision is appealed.

    Of course, more time was spent prior to October 1, 2012 also.

    Hundreds of hours spent on a case the City/Municipal Corporation has lost, unless that decision is overturned on appeal.

    It is painful to consider the cost and how all of those legal hours and staff time could have been spent on other needs. Then of course there is the $91,177 payment made in 2013 plus the pending award of $1,035,351.

    Multiple decision points – who decides what is in the best interest of the Municipal Corporation?

  17. As we now finally know that “The pool (Washington Cities Insurance Authority) covered the cost of the entire judgment and the legal expenses for the city” – maybe the WCIA and its legal counsel played the largest role in deciding what was in the best interest of the “Municipal Corporation” of Edmonds.

    Was the decision to expend all these resources on this legal fight the right decision??

    See related comments above, including:

    Related to pending litigation and/or the ever popular “potential” litigation – Who plays a role in deciding what is in the best interest of the “Municipal Corporation”?

    Four (4) parties come to mind:

    1. The Mayor
    2. The City Council
    3. The City Attorney
    4. The Washington Cities Insurance Authority and its legal counsel. (Washington Cities Insurance Authority is a self insured municipal risk pool, offering liability, property and specialty insurance programs as well as risk management services to municipal entities in Washington state.)

    It would be nice to see a full accounting of the cost, including the hundreds of staff, elected official and City Attorney hours spent over several years.

    It is painful to consider the cost and how all of those legal hours and staff time could have been spent on other needs. The $91,177 payment made in 2013 plus the awards of over $2,000,000 do not provide an accurate picture of the true cost of this situation.

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