Jury awards three plaintiffs nearly $700,000 in damages
A jury in a wrongful termination lawsuit ruled in favor of three former Clark County employees Thursday. The jury, which had been in deliberation since testimony concluded on Monday, found that former Clark County Manager Mark McCauley wrongly terminated three employees when he eliminated the Environmental Services Department in 2016.
Don Benton filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the county while he was still director of the department. Benton, Susan Rice and Christopher Clifford were later dismissed by the county when the Environmental Services Department was eliminated. Rice had served as Benton’s administrative assistant and Clifford served as a program coordinator.
According to an Oregon Public Broadcasting report, the jury awarded $693,998 economic and non-economic damages on 11 of 12 charges. Rice was awarded $391,400 in economic damages. She had previously withdrawn a request for noneconomic damages.
Clifford was awarded $219,800 in economic damages and $15,000 in noneconomic damages. Benton was awarded $22,798 in economic damages and $45,000 in noneconomic damages by the jury.
Clark County issued the following statement following the announcement of the jury’s verdict.
“Clark County thanks the Court and jury for their work and service in this case,’’ read the statement. “The county recognizes and appreciates the time members of the jury spent giving their careful consideration of the facts in this case. County leadership will be carefully reviewing the verdict and evaluating the county’s options moving forward.
“The county continues to be committed to providing services that enhance the quality of life for our diverse community in part by supporting and empowering county employees in their efforts to provide excellent public service.”
Benton shared his thoughts after the verdict was announced.
“It feels good to be vindicated,” he said. “It should have never come to this. Julie Olson, Mark Gassaway and county management should be ashamed of themselves for ever allowing this case to get this far. They fired McCauley for similar bad behavior, yet continued to pay hundreds of thousands out to defend what he did to the department and to the innocent employees he ruined.”
“The truth is out now,” Benton said. “The jury exposed their lies with their verdict. We are very pleased with the verdict and to have this bad behavior exposed.”
In March, Clark County Superior Court Judge Gregory Gonzales issued a rebuke and a $40,000 fine against Clark County for abusing claims of attorney-client privilege. The county had withheld 1,719 pages of documents subpoenaed by the plaintiffs. The law firm Patterson, Buchanan, Fobes & Leitch Inc. representing the county, paid the fine.
Benton made the case that he was fired as head of DES in part due to his “alleging financial wrongdoing” by the county and retaliation against him for making those allegations. The department was dissolved in May 2016 by Mark McCauley, who was later fired as county manager in 2017.
Benton had filed a $2 million whistleblower lawsuit in 2016. The suit named Benton as well as Rice and Clifford as plaintiffs. Clifford apparently helped Benton draft the complaint, and Rice looked it over.
In January of 2017, Clark County Today reported McCauley’s comments from September of 2015 about the idea of eliminating DES. McCauley responded: “if you’re looking at the metrics, I think the department is performing very well. If you look at things like the quantities of recycled volumes and some of the many activities that they perform, such as the Recycled Arts Festival, objectively the metrics are very good.’’
Those remarks conflicted with the reasons later alleged for shutting down the department and terminating the three employees.
In that 2017 report, Benton provided county budget documents that showed the DES 2015-16 budget of $29 million was almost $8 million less than it was during the previous cycle. He also claimed responsibility for successfully negotiating a lawsuit against the county that could have cost the county as much as $40 million. Benton said he negotiated the settlement down to $3.6 million. At the time, Benton’s assertion about the lawsuit savings was supported by multiple other county sources.
Evan Bariault and Mark Conrad, the former employees’ attorneys, said Benton drew county leaders’ wrath for being a “watchdog.” He said Benton had questioned improper budget transfers and that the county let some public entities, like the Washington State Department of Transportation, off the hook for certain fees.
McCauley had an angry confrontation with Benton during a meeting about Benton’s actions. The tirade was witnessed by others.
After the layoffs, county policy entitles workers to be reassigned to different positions. They can also be given priority when applying for new jobs after they are laid off. The county didn’t make any efforts to offer jobs to the three former workers.
“Why treat them this way?” Bariault told OPB. “The answer is simple. It’s retaliation.”