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City can release report about court

Details as to why two highly-paid Federal Way court employees resigned within a three-month period continue to emerge despite some opposition.

Former Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl resigned in December after her intimate involvement with one of the court’s public defenders. Hartl later claimed the court was a harassing workplace environment. Former court administrator Gina Palermo resigned in February after signing a settlement agreement in which she vowed not to disclose the events leading up to her voluntary leave.

In the latest legal battle involving the Federal Way Municipal Court, a county judge ruled March 19 that an investigation of a hostile workplace environment can be made public by the city.

King County Superior Court Judge Kimberley Prochnau ruled that reports from the investigation are in the possession of the city and are subject to the Public Disclosure Act — and are not subject to attorney-client privilege. Prochnau granted Federal Way Judge Michael Morgan and his attorneys a one-week stay on the ruling. During this time, Morgan can decide whether to pursue the case at the state Court of Appeals.

The City of Federal Way did not object to the one-week stay. Prochnau said the city was taking remedial action in setting up an investigation of the Federal Way Municipal Court’s workplace environment, which is the subject of the report Morgan seeks to block from public disclosure.

The report, dubbed “the Stephson report” after the Seattle attorney who conducted the investigation, is not exempt from public disclosure laws, Prochnau said. Amy Stephson was hired by Federal Way as an investigator, not an attorney, according to the court proceedings.

Earlier this month, Morgan filed the lawsuit against Federal Way City Attorney Pat Richardson to halt the release of the Stephson report. The injunction claimed that Richardson was acting on behalf of Morgan, therefore entitling him to attorney-client privilege. Prochnau ruled that Richardson was acting on behalf of Federal Way and its court, not Morgan as an individual, therefore qualifying the report for public release.

The report contains allegations of a hostile work environment that may paint Morgan, the court’s presiding judge and overall manager, in a negative light.

On March 18, the Federal Way City Council voted unanimously (7-0) in defense of the city’s arguments in its case vs. Morgan.

Behind closed doors:

While Morgan temporarily succeeded in blocking the city’s release of the report, the city has released some public records concerning Palermo’s resignation from her position.

Palermo served as the court administrator for eight years before her voluntary dismissal from employment. Her former duties included record-keeping and clerical work for the court, as well as training of court staff and communications with the public.

Palermo was one of five individuals who attended former Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Colleen Hartl’s holiday party in December and later reported Hartl’s claims of an affair with public defender Sean Cecil.

Following the party, Palermo was on administrative leave, according to a Feb. 4 e-mail from Human Resources Director Mary McDougal to Judge Michael Morgan. During this time, an investigation took place in the court. The city is not releasing the findings of that investigation to the public.

Leading up to Palermo’s resignation, Morgan requested a Loudermill meeting with Palermo and her legal representation, according to a Feb. 4 e-mail from Palermo’s attorney Sue Sampson to City Attorney Pat Richardson.

This is a due process meeting and provides the employer an opportunity to address problem behavior or performance by an employee, while allowing that employee to respond to the allegations. The same day, Sampson requested a “candid discussion” with Richardson about Palermo’s circumstances, according to an e-mail.

Final agreement:

On Feb. 15, Palermo resigned and signed the settlement agreement with the city. Included in the agreement is a pledge of confidentiality to not discuss, publicize or disclose the existence of the agreement, or the circumstances leading to Palermo’s resignation, unless required by law.

Furthermore, city and court employees have agreed to refrain from making damaging comments about other employees or Palermo in connection with her resignation. A copy of the agreement was provided by the city under the Public Disclosure Act.

As per the settlement, Palermo is to receive two and one-half months severance pay ($18,913) and accrued vacation pay of $3,223. Also included in the agreement, in exchange for “good and valuable consideration,” is Palermo’s “release and forever discharge of claims, potential claims, demands, damages, liabilities and causes of action of any kind or nature whatsoever, known or unknown, arising out of Ms. Palermo’s employment relationship with the City/Court and/or her separation therefrom.”

This includes claims for wages, benefits, defamation, disparate treatment, mental or emotional distress, interest, penalties, attorney’s fees, costs, or disbursements, among other things, according to the agreement.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

t Judge continues to fight public disclosure of workplace investigation

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