Myla Hoffman-Hite, the former Human Rights Investigator for the City of Tacoma, has filed a tort claim against the city for sex discrimination. In the claim, which asks for unspecified monetary damages, Hoffman-Hite charges that the city has engaged in a pattern of disparate treatment for women managers and women generally.
Hoffman-Hite was placed on administrative leave in January, 1999, following an incident with one of her subordinate employees, Lela Fishe, an African-American.
According to the tort claim, Fishe attended a two-week diversity training class in July, 1998. Afterwards, she shared many personal issues that had been raised by the training with Hoffman-Hite. Hoffman-Hite referred her to counseling and committed to continue listen to her concerns, as an attempt to be supportive.
Throughout this period, Fishe was often emotional and frequently came into Hoffman-Hite’s office to vent about her husband for various reasons. According to the tort claim, during one session, “She stated that she had come to realize that part of the reason she married her husband was because as a black female living in a predominantly white culture, white was more valued.” Fishe continued to express dissatisfaction with her marriage, and at a different session, she, “…stated the realization she was going to divorce her husband.”
According to the claim, Hoffman-Hite countered, offering friendly advice, attempting to calm her, stating her belief that, “The reason she married her husband and continued to be married to him was because some of her needs were being filled.” She went on, telling Fishe to ask herself questions like, “Are you with him because you love him? What was it about him you loved? Do you stay with him for financial security? Are you with him to provide a role model for your daughters by a previous marriage?” And, “Is part of the reason you’re with him because he’s white?”
According to the tort claim, she counseled Fishe, “Not to decide whether to remain married or divorce until she did some serious soul searching and identified what needs of hers were being fulfilled, and whether or not this was a temporary state of affairs.”
Not long after this, Hoffman-Hite found the need to have some performance counseling sessions with Fishe, and shortly thereafter, Fishe complained to another staff member. At that point, the then-acting Human Resources Director Mary Brown, became involved, and on behalf of Fishe, implemented a race discrimination investigation against Hoffman-Hite.
When asked, Fishe repeatedly refused to comment on the race discrimination charges or any other aspect of the case.
One well-placed source has speculated that the race discrimination charges were contrived and that Brown took the action out of personal animosity against Hoffman-Hite. Brown had been in contention for the permanent Human Resources Director position, and according to the source, may have felt Hoffman-Hite had damaged her chances for the permanent appointment by giving a negative recommendation to the Civil Service Board.
Following the charges of race discrimination, Hoffman-Hite was placed on paid administrative leave. She was directed to have no contact with city staff while Brown investigated the charges alleged to have been made by Fishe. Hoffman-Hite contends the city refused to consider evidence during this period that was favorable to her, as well as shredded stacks of documents from her office files. The city also told other senior managers that it wasn’t very likely she would be returning.
In an attempt to maintain the appearance of fairness, the city hired the Bellevue law firm of Sebris and Busto – which coincidentally also advises the Tacoma Public Library on labor relations matters – to independently investigate the charges. Subsequently, the investigation was then later expanded to include nearly all aspects of her job.
On March 1, 1999, Hoffman-Hite filed the tort claim with the city, and at about the same time, filed a sex discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. About a month later in April, at the conclusion of Sebris and Busto’s investigation, the city ordered Hoffman-Hite to return to work. She refused.
“Ms. Hoffman’s representatives have made every effort to resolve this matter without filing a lawsuit,” said Artis Grant, of Grant and Grant, Hoffman-Hite’s attorney. “However, the city has totally ignored efforts to resolve this short of a lawsuit, and so it appears this will inevitably result in a lawsuit.”
According to Grant, the conditions of Hoffman-Hite’s return to work required by the city were unacceptable, and further, were intentionally designed to be unacceptable. Through it’s investigation of the race discrimination charges, the city had so severely damaged Hoffman-Hite’s reputation with co-workers and associates, it would have been impossible for her to return and do an effective job. This served, said Grant, as a constructive discharge.
A constructive discharge is where the conditions of employment are untenable; where the employer virtually drives the employee to quit. In this case, said Grant, the real reason for termination is a pattern of gender-based discrimination.
Following Hoffman-Hite’s departure on administrative leave, the city tried to hide what had been going on, and then later took action to insure future employees in her position would be easier to remove.
Going before the Tacoma Civil Service Board, the city told the Board variously that Hoffman-Hite was on vacation or an extended leave of absence. No mention of the real reasons were made.
The Civil Service Board members were all familiar with Hoffman-Hite, because one of her duties had been to act as liaison to the Board. As such, many members were concerned at her prolonged absence, and didn’t really buy the story of an extended vacation. The news that Hoffman-Hite wasn’t coming back finally came out at a Civil Service Board meeting, where a dispute ensued with city officials, with some of the Board members questioning the city for it’s handling of the case.
Shortly afterwards, Philip Knudsen, the new Human Resources Director, approached the City Council, requesting the council make the Human Rights Investigator position exempt from civil service. Two Civil Service Board members, Amy Hoglund and Board Chair Jacquie Hyde learned of this, and testified at City Council meetings opposing the exempt status. The proposal was eventually dropped.
To a public employer, the value of making a position exempt is that exempt positions have no civil service protections and can be fired at will, for any reason with no showing of cause.
Slightly before that time, Hoffman-Hite filed the tort claim with the city.
In addition to disputing her own constructive discharge, the tort claim also alleges the city engaged in a pattern of treating women differently than men. The claim lists a number of examples where males were treated differently than females who committed similar infractions. According to the claim, the common pattern was to fire or severely discipline women, where in similar offenses, males might instead be given counseling or a written reprimand. In her claim, she lists about a dozen examples which she says illustrates her case. According to Grant, as the former Human Rights Investigator for the city, Hoffman-Hite is in a unique position which will substantially help in proving her claims. Or put more succinctly, she knows where all the bodies are buried.
According to Grant, he is waiting for approval to sue from the EEOC, and expects to file suit in federal court some time in the near future.
City Councilman Dave De Forrest, believes the case will be settled out of court. “My impression is she will probably come to some settlement because that’s what we do, for whatever reason. These cases cost a lot to defend.” He went on, “The city is responsible to see the workplace environment is healthy, safe and equal. I admit our track record is poor, and I don’t know if it’s getting better. I think maybe we need to make some changes, particularly in the reporting procedures for sexual harassment.”
Commenting about the charges of a general pattern of sexual discrimination, De Forrest said, “I don’t think it goes all the way to the top. I don’t see Ray [Corpuz] tolerating discrimination.”
However, he does take issue with Corpuz’s handling of a case involving three employees at the sewage treatment facility. In that case, two women alleged sexual harassment involving a male employee. The male countersued. In the end, all three split a settlement of about $160,000.
“In the sewage treatment case, the City Manager did nothing. I thought something should have happened. Someone should have been fired.”
De Forrest discounts the possibility that Hoffman-Hite’s removal was an act of spite done by Mary Brown. “I don’t think Mary Brown was really a serious candidate or wanted the Human Resources Director job. I don’t follow that line of thought.”
The person who was eventually hired as the new Human Resources Director, Philip Knudsen is upbeat. “I believe the City of Tacoma has a credible record of treating people fairly without regard to their gender, race or whatever.” Added Knudsen, “Are we perfect? No. Are we trying to get better? Yes.”
He wouldn’t comment about the specifics of Hoffman-Hite’s tort claim. “I have not seen a list of specific allegations. I’ve only seen the general charges. Even if I were supplied that, those matters are under litigation, and it’s our policy not to comment.”
Attorney Grant believes his client will prevail. “It is unfortunate that the taxpayers will have to continue to pay for the city’s misconduct and errors in judgment.”
When asked exactly how much he thinks his client will win from the city, Grant replied, “We don’t discuss figures. In fact, when we invited the city in a lengthy letter to mediate the dispute, we did not make a demand. We wanted to engage in the process of trying to resolve the complaint. However these cases typically are in the mid six figure range, and attorney’s fees can result in awards of several hundred thousand dollars. So there is significant risk should this matter proceed to trial.”
The law firm of Grant and Grant has represented a number of employees in discrimination cases against the City of Tacoma. Notably, the firm represented police officers Loretta Cool who was awarded $150,000 in a settlement last January, as well as officers Barbra Justice, Wendie Harper, Ardith Schrag and a civilian police employee, Sandra Manchester, who won a $575,000 settlement from the city based on a suit filed in 1996. The city’s court costs in that case were reported to be around $250,000.
The firm has also won a discrimination complaint for six Tacoma School District students totaling around $450,000 in 1998. Prior to that there was another case with an award to students totaling around $489,000 in 1996.
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