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Appeals court dismisses wrongful termination lawsuit against county

TACOMA — Former fair director Paula Jones had her wrongful termination lawsuit against Grays Harbor County dismissed by the state Court of Appeals, who ruled that there wasn’t sufficient enough court record or evidence proving her case.

Jones was terminated in 2008 after holding the role of acting fair director at the time, she had worked for 22 years for the county. She had originally sought $610,000 in damages.

Jones and her attorney Chris Crew filed the lawsuit in 2011 against Grays Harbor County along with the county commissioners at the time and several fair employees and fair board members, alleging there was a “conspiracy” between all of the parties to destroy her career and replace her with two men.

The lawsuit contained defamation claims, retaliation claims, hostile work environment allegations and discriminatory discharge claims.

Pacific County Superior Court Judge Michael Sullivan dismissed the lawsuit in September of 2012, citing a lack of evidence.

Crew appealed the case to the state Court of Appeals Division II. A panel of three judges dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 17.

The appeal contained some technical aspects of filing the lawsuit, including whether Judge Sullivan properly considered motions made by Crew. But those aspects were all denied, primarily because the court said Crew had failed to provide records to make his case and they had “nothing to review.”

The wrongful termination question was the primary issue of interest.

The judges note that Jones had to “prove that the public-policy-linked conduct caused the dismissal.”

The entire lawsuit seems to stem from a single incident that happened in the summer of 2007, when a fair board member allegedly confronted Jones in a loud voice waving a piece of paper in front of her face. The incident made Jones afraid and she filed a police report on the incident, according to a deposition by Jones. The fair board member then resigned from the board.

The judges say that the only public policy issue at play is the deposition from one county commissioner at the time who said that the incident involving the fair board member was the only thing Jones had done wrong. But the judges note that her termination happened 16 months after.

“In addition, Jones presents no other evidence of causation nor does she make substantial argument that her complaints to the County and to the police regarding (the fair board member’s) conduct were the cause of her termination,” the court opinion states. “Further, Jones cannot show wrongful intent to discharge because she does not explain why the county’ s proffered reasons for her termination did not actually cause her termination. The county explained that it terminated Jones because of her poor management skills, poor communication, and a lack of professionalism and ability to do the job. Jones does explain why these reasons could not have been the cause of her termination. Instead she relies on bare allegations that the County’s only reason for terminating her was that she stood up to (the fair board member) after he assaulted her on the job. But bare allegations regarding the causation nexus are insufficient to avoid summary judgment. Even when reviewed in the light most favorable to Jones, the evidence is insufficient here to meet her burden. Reasonable minds can reach but one conclusion here — that Jones has not shown on the record before us, sufficient evidence of a nexus between her employment termination and any alleged public policy violation.”

The judges add, “Therefore, she has not met the causation element for the tort of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, her claim fails, and we do not address the remaining elements. We hold that the superior court did not err in dismissing this claim.”

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