October 10, 2017
Today a jury awarded Julie Atwood damages in the amount of $8.1 million against Hanford contractor Mission Support Alliance (MSA) for retaliation and discrimination. The jury also found that MSA Vice President and Kennewick Mayor Steve Young aided and abetted in MSA’s wrongful actions.
Ms. Atwood had a thirty-year career working as a manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology and later for private companies involved in waste management. She was an Ecology regulator at Hanford, and had experience working there going back to the days when Hanford was still producing plutonium. After Ecology, she worked for Hanford, and non-Hanford companies. Her employment track was a record of promotions and increased job responsibilities. She joined MSA in 2010 as a program manager and was evaluated as a top performer by her MSA managers and her customer, which is the Department of Energy (DOE).
For most of his career, Steve Young worked as a small business owner providing consulting services in a one-person office. But after he became Mayor of Kennewick, he was recruited by MSA CEO Frank Armijo to be a Vice President reporting directly to Armijo. For years, MSA billed the DOE for Young’s time based on his working a 40-hour week. At trial, Young admitted that he worked 16-20 hours a week every week on mayor-related business, and denied that he ever worked less than a 40-hour week for MSA. However, Young admitted he used his DOE office, his DOE computer, and his DOE email address for mayor business—all during the work day.
At trial, Young testified that being mayor advantaged MSA and DOE:
- “The biggest return on me being a mayor is the Department of Energy. I’m able to do what the Department of Energy can’t do because I’m an elected official.”
- “My job, one of my jobs as mayor, is the ability to go back, meet with the [U.S.] Senate, meet with the House.”
- “I can actually bump a regular citizen and testify before a committee about an issue because I’m an elected official.”
- “I use my vacation to go back and lobby — and I’ll use the word lobby — for the local [DOE] offices for the needs that they have to try to get the money they need for the Hanford site.”
Julie was fired three days after she was interviewed by two internal investigators, who reported to MSA vice presidents that Julie had stated that Young had created a hostile work environment, that he treated her differently, and that he used work time to do mayor-related business. Julie was humiliated by having to bring her belongings from her office to her car during the work day using a wheelchair as a carrier under escort by MSA attorney Steve Cherry.
Jack said, “At trial we contended that Young was so valuable to MSA and to the DOE that when they perceived that Julie has focused a spotlight on him with her report to the investigators, MSA took immediate action to terminate her.”
There was also evidence that under Armijo, women were treated differently, and that men who engaged in improper acts were not fired. This raised the question: if MSA and Young thought she did something wrong, why was there no counseling, progressive discipline, or use of a performance improvement plan before her termination (there was evidence that Julie was investigated in 2013 without her knowledge). Why did MSA fire Julie, but not fire men who actually engaged in serious misconduct?
The jury found that Julie was fired in retaliation for her statements made to investigators and that her gender was a substantial factor in her termination. Jack said, “Julie was a model employee and her integrity, and the fact that she is a woman, got her fired. MSA hurt her and humiliated her, and the jury held MSA accountable. The system worked. Hopefully, MSA management will learn from this verdict.”
The jury awarded $2.1 million in lost wages, which is the amount of loss calculated by labor economist Paul Torelli, Ph.D., and $6 million in emotional harm damages, which was supported by the expert testimony of Laura Brown, Ph.D.