Former state Sen. Don Benton wins wrongful termination suit against Clark County
Clark County will have to pay nearly $700,000 combined to three former employees, including a longtime former state senator, for how it dissolved and laid off a department in 2016.
Jurors ruled Thursday that the county wrongfully terminated former state Sen. Don Benton, who led the Department of Environmental Services from 2013 to 2016, and two of his subordinates, Susan Rice and Chris Clifford.
After more than two days of deliberations, jurors awarded $391,000 to Rice for economic and non-economic damages, $234,000 to Clifford and about $68,000 to Benton.
In a statement, Clark County issued a statement thanking the jury and the Clark County Superior Court.
“The county recognizes and appreciates the time members of the jury spent giving their careful consideration of the facts in this case,” the statement read. “County leadership will be carefully reviewing th e verdict and evaluating the county’s options moving forward.”
Four-and-a-half years in the making, the trial was not a typical spat between former employees and their bosses.
At the center of it was Benton, a longtime firebrand politician from Southwest Washington. His appointment to lead the department in 2013 sparked calls of cronyism, with detractors pointing to his relationships with two county commissioners at the time.
The former state Senator has made headlines in recent years, too, for his involvement in the other Washington. His staunch support of former President Donald Trump resulted in a job leading the U.S. Selective Service until the 2020 election.
All the while, the wrongful termination suit had been playing out in Clark County. In 2016, just after being laid off, he filed his wrongful termination claim.
His attorneys, Seattle law firm Frey Buck, said Benton was targeted because he spotlighted government waste. They also represented Clifford and Rice and said they were collateral damage.
Besides arguing retaliation, attorneys also claimed the three’s layoffs breached the county’s employment contract.
County attorneys disagreed. Seattle firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch disputed retaliation factored into the decision at all. They said dissolving the department was part of a pre-planned move to spread the department’s work across other departments. They disputed the breach of contract allegation.
Closing arguments Monday revolved around whether there was, in fact, retaliation, and whether the county followed its own policies on how it treats employees facing layoffs.
Evan Bariault and Mark Conrad, the ex-employees’ attorneys, said Benton drew county leaders’ wrath for being a “watchdog.” He said Benton raised alarms on improper budget transfers and that the county let some public entities, like the Washington Department of Transportation, skip certain fee payments.
One scene repeatedly revisited in the trial involved then-County Manager Mark McCauley angrily confronting Benton during a meeting, in plain view of others, about Benton’s actions.
In defending the county, attorney Megan Starks disputed the county retaliated. She said Benton’s purported discoveries of misconduct weren’t blowing the whistle, but fixing routine mistakes.
Starks said getting entities to pay fees was not a case of Benton righting wrongs, but part of a department-wide initiative to get better compliance. And the example of missed payments was Benton finding an overdue bill.
“This is not anybody being a whistleblower. This is somebody doing their job,” Starks told jurors.
Bariault also argued county policies entitled workers facing layoffs to be reassigned to different positions, or be given priority when applying for new jobs after they are laid off. He said the county didn’t extend any efforts to the three former workers.
“Why treat them this way?” Bariault said. “The answer is simple. It’s retaliation.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued the trio had qualifications for job postings that came up later, but, in most cases, couldn’t land interviews. Attorneys often highlighted Rice, who worked for the county for 19 years and whom they portrayed as struggling ever since.
“For months, Susan Rice is facing layoff. The county knows she’s facing layoff. They know Don and Chris are potentially facing layoffs. But it makes no efforts to reassign (them to new jobs),” Bariault said. “That is a breach of its obligation and its contractual duties.
Ultimately, jurors found retaliation factored into the firing of Benton and Clifford, who was often portrayed as a close ally of Benton. They did not find Benton’s firing was a breach of contract but did agree that occurred with Clifford and Rice.
On Thursday, it remained unclear how much Clark County had spent fighting the lawsuit. County officials had so far refused to disclose that information, despite the public interest in the case and the use of taxpayer dollars.
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting