Labor & Employment

harassment

Image from Shutterstock.com.

The Washington State Bar Association’s board of governors created a hostile work environment for staff by mishandling an employee’s sexual harassment allegations lodged against a board member, according to an outside investigator’s scathing report that recently became public.

The report criticized the board for not taking remedial action against bar governor Dan’L W. Bridges despite a separate investigation concluding that employee Kara Ralph’s account of Bridges making sexualized statements to her at an off-site retreat was more credible than his recollection of the incident. In fact, rather than punish Bridges, the board elected him treasurer of the WSBA.

“To a reasonable person outside the board, it appeared that the [board] had voted to promote an individual they knew had committed inappropriate conduct and was deemed less than credible,” attorney Beth Van Moppes, a member of Washington state law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace, wrote in the 25-page summary of her investigation dated Dec. 31, 2019.

The investigator’s findings have been cheered by current and former WSBA employees whose raising of concerns about the bar’s handling of Ralph’s allegations prompted the Washington Supreme Court to unanimously order the workplace probe early last year. Meanwhile, according to WSBA officials, the retreat incident and Van Moppes’ investigation led the association to adopt clear policies for handling complaints against board members as previously recommended by staff.

But questions and critiques have arisen in recent weeks about the lack of transparency from the WSBA and court concerning the completion of the workplace review, which the then-Washington chief justice informed bar association leadership about in December.

It was not until the last week of April that the full supreme court received Van Moppes’ report and the WSBA requested the document and shared it with staff. These disclosures came only after Athan Papailiou, a former WSBA board member, received the report from the state court system following an appeal of a prior public records request.

“This investigation was publicly ordered,” says Robin Nussbaum, a former WSBA employee. “I don’t understand why the results of the investigation were not publicly shared.”

‘We’re going to have a problem’

The alleged sexual harassment incident at issue occurred during a WSBA retreat/meeting at a hotel in Walla Walla, Washington, in July 2016. Ralph had begun her position that month as the association’s events & sponsorship specialist. Meanwhile, Bridges had been elected as a bar board member but was not yet sworn in.

After dinner one night of the retreat, Ralph was sitting alone at a table by the hotel bar when Bridges joined her, starting what turned into a lengthy conversation. Ralph says Bridges, who is married, told her early on that he doesn’t believe in being monogamous, according to a report from an outside investigator the WSBA hired.

When Ralph left the bar, she alleges, Bridges followed and got on the elevator with her. Ralph claims Bridges later said he wanted to go to Ralph’s room and took the elevator to her floor, which was above his. When the elevator arrived at Ralph’s floor, she said she stepped off and told Bridges if he disembarked, “we’re going to have a problem.”

Bridges denied he offered to go to Ralph’s room and that he said he is not monogamous, asserting to the investigator neither he nor Ralph displayed any sexual interest in the other.

Jillian Barron, the employment lawyer hired to investigate the incident, wrote that Bridges’ story about what happened after he and Ralph left the bar evolved over the course of her two meetings with him.

“In short, while Ms. Ralph’s and Mr. Bridges’ accounts of the circumstances are consistent in many respects, with regard to the conduct on which they disagree I find it more likely than not that Mr. Bridges engaged in certain actions that he strongly denies,” wrote Barron, a shareholder at Bellevue, Washington, law firm Sebris Busto James.

Barron’s July 2018 report did not state whether Bridges had violated any WSBA policy or state law, nor did it provide any recommendations on what the association should do in response to her findings.

Although the retreat incident happened in 2016, Ralph did not disclose it until 2018. That is when she told Papailiou, who was then a WSBA board member, at a legal conference. This prompted Papailiou to report the incident to WSBA leadership, which led to Barron’s investigation, which cost roughly $23,000, according to the bar.

After discussing the Barron report at a July 2018 private-session meeting, the board voted in a public session shortly thereafter to elect Bridges as the WSBA’s 2018-2019 treasurer. He prevailed over another board member who had sought the post and was recommended by the outgoing treasurer.

Washington bar logo

Investigating the board

In January 2019, 34 of the WSBA’s approximately 150 employees sent a letter to the association’s board criticizing the panel’s response to the Barron investigation.

“From our perspective, a colleague disclosed an allegation of harassment by a board member and the board’s response to that disclosure resulted in a process that lacked proper oversight, transparency, and consideration of our colleague’s safety and well-being,” the letter said.

The employees also wrote that elevating Bridges to treasurer was “effectively rewarding the accused with an even more powerful position with more direct access to staff members.”

A few days later, a group of 28 employees sent a
letter to the state supreme court that amplified their concerns.

Mary Fairhurst, the chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court at the time, responded to the employees in a March 1, 2019 letter indicating the court would select an independent investigator to review their allegations of a hostile work environment. She ultimately selected Van Moppes, who interviewed 53 individuals with ties to the WSBA, including employees and board members.

Van Moppes’ investigative report emphasizes that the board of governors discussed in a July 26, 2018, session closed to the public the outside report that concluded Bridges had given Ralph “unwanted personal attention.”

Van Moppes wrote that Bridges was present for the conversation about the report, and there was no discussion about the propriety of his attendance. Bridges said during the session he needed to share information he felt was not included in the Barron report, according to Van Moppes.

Bridges’ written rebuttal to the board about the Barron report and comments he made in the closed session misquoted its findings, Van Moppes wrote, something she said Bridges continued to do “frequently thereafter.”

“The fact that the [board] permitted Governor Bridges to remain in the room, to defend himself both verbally and in writing, and to “misstate” the report’s findings, is egregious,” Van Moppes wrote.

The board eventually decided to send Ralph a letter stating they had taken her complaint seriously and would implement additional harassment training, which Van Moppes said was regularly scheduled training.

Overall, Van Moppes concluded, on a more-likely-than-not basis, “that the working environment for the WSBA employees was hostile, intimidating, and insulting, as a result of the board’s failures.” However, she added that whether any liability flows from the board’s conduct or the working environment they created was a legal determination outside the scope of her work.

Van Moppes declined to comment for this article. The WSBA said it paid $165,948.24 for her work.

Bridges defends actions

Bridges defends his involvement in the board’s initial deliberations about his interaction with Ralph at the retreat, and he tells the ABA Journal that the board is improperly being accused of creating a hostile work environment.

Bridges also emphasizes that then-Chief Justice Fairhurst and one other state supreme court justice were present for the private board session in which his conduct was discussed, an assertion confirmed by others.

“The idea that this stuff was happening behind closed doors, smoky rooms, is nonsense,” says Bridges, a partner at McGaughey Bridges Dunlap in Seattle who cycled off the WSBA board in fall 2019.

Additionally, Bridges says the board made the right decision in deciding not to take any remedial action against him because he did nothing wrong, adding that a lie detector test he decided to take supports his position.

In late 2018, Bridges filed a tort claim against the bar alleging he was retaliated against because he blew the whistle regarding “conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and irregularities within WSBA.” The claim said he was seeking at least $1 million in damages, though a subsequent letter from his attorney in early 2019 indicated the WSBA should consider that dollar amount withdrawn.

In April, Bridges agreed to release the bar from any claims during his time serving on the WSBA board in exchange for the board passing a resolution praising his service. The board resolution approved in a private session in mid-April says Bridges “worked diligently to bring heightened transparency and greater fiscal accountability to the organization for the benefit of its members.”

“WSBA acknowledges that Mr. Bridges’ term was during a tumultuous time and some acts were taken to undermine him personally as a way to oppose the policies he was advocating,” the resolution says. “That was not appropriate.”

Bridges did not receive any money as part of the settlement, which the ABA Journal obtained through a public records request.

Staff praises report’s findings

Longtime WSBA employee Pam Inglesby says the board’s continued support of Bridges’ version of events is “insulting to staff.”
She is among the current and former Washington Bar employees who say Van Moppes accurately portrayed the troubling work environment they experienced.

“What the report does for us is it confirms the reality we have been living through the last couple of years,” says Inglesby, a volunteer operations specialist who has worked at the bar for 20 years. “I observed interactions between board members and WSBA staff that felt very hostile and unprofessional.”

Nussbaum, who previously worked as the bar’s senior inclusion and equity specialist, called the outside report “vindicating.”

“It felt like a pretty terrible place to be, yet members of the board were acting and talking to us like we were crazy,” says Nussbaum, who left the WSBA last fall. “If we can’t trust our lawyers to behave ethically and appropriately, that is a recipe for social disaster.”

Van Moppes’ report also noted that at least a dozen employees resigned from the WSBA in 2019, and many of them said they left due to the board’s failure to properly address Ralph’s sexual harassment complaint.

In February 2019, Ralph filed a suit claiming the WSBA violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination in its handling of her allegations against Bridges.

“The board’s failure to hold its own member accountable is part of a systemic problem that discourages women employees from reporting violations and enables a toxic workplace, including sexual harassment, to continue,” said the complaint filed on Ralph’s behalf by attorney Isaac Ruiz, who is now the managing attorney of Plaintiff Litigation Group in Seattle.

Ralph left her job at the WSBA in June 2019, which was around the time she settled her lawsuit.

The bar declined to disclose the amount paid to Ralph as part of the settlement, saying both parties have agreed to no further comments. Ruiz did not provide comment for this article by deadline.

Frances Dujon-Reynolds, who served as the Washington bar’s director of human resources for roughly 14 years, tells the ABA Journal that she is another employee who stepped down last year because of the board’s actions and treatment of staff.

“We said we represented the highest level of integrity in the profession, yet that wasn’t what I was seeing,” Dujon-Reynolds says. “That to me was so egregious. I could not live with that.”

She is also among those with WSBA ties who criticize the state’s supreme court for not doing more to try to right the ship at the bar.

“The court is supposed to be the check, and it is very hands off and has refused to serve in that capacity from what I’ve seen,” Dujon-Reynolds says.

Fairhurst, who left her post as chief justice early this year, did not respond to an interview request made through the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Seeing the light of day

It was the high court’s chief justice who notified WSBA leadership last December of the workplace investigation’s completion and recommended the bar adopt some explicit policy revisions in response to Van Moppes’ conclusions.

“The changes should ensure there are anti-harassment policies and procedures in general as well as clear policies and procedures for handling complaints against a governor,” Fairhurst wrote in a Dec. 9, 2019, letter to WSBA President Rajeev Majumdar and WSBA Interim Executive Director Terra Nevitt.

Fairhurst wrote she had also discussed with Majumdar how her recommendations could be accomplished, though Majumdar says the WSBA did not receive or request Van Moppes’ investigative report at that time.

Later in December 2019, the bar’s board adopted new language in its anti-harassment policy covering complaints against governors. Majumdar says the staff offered very helpful amendments that were included in the policy.

“While the WSBA had to go through some tumultuous times, I think the staff and board were able to come together as a result of this and put policies in place so that we wouldn’t be inclined to be in such a situation ever again,” Majumdar says.

The updated policy calls for the chief justice to appoint an independent ombudsperson who plays a role in determining, along with the WSBA president and HR director, whether the facts stated in a complaint involving a WSBA board member constitute harassment or discrimination. If so, the ombudsperson chooses an outside investigator to review the complaint.

In March, new Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra L. Stephens named Oregon employment lawyer Sarah Hale as the ombudsperson for complaints made against WSBA board members. Hale, an Oregon-based partner at Barran Liebman, previously investigated whether WSBA board member Papailiou was retaliated against by other board members, including Bridges, for reporting Ralph’s sexual harassment allegations. In a January 2019 report to the chief justice, Hale wrote the evidence did not support Papailiou’s allegations.

Meanwhile, President Majumdar says the Washington bar did not seek the Van Moppes report and share it with staff prior to late April because he feared its disclosure might scare employees from participating in future investigations.

“The reason we have requested the report now is because we have learned that the Administrative Office of the Courts determined the record to be public and released it; under those circumstances, we wanted to provide notice to our employees who participated and to be prepared for questions and exposure to the public,” he said in a recent statement.

Nevitt said she agreed with the decision not to seek the report in December, though both she and Majumdar acknowledged many employees likely would have wanted to review it.

“While this report may have been one that people would like to see out there and published, I can imagine there might be other investigations we might conduct that they might feel differently about,” Nevitt said in an interview.

Papailiou, who while on the WSBA board pushed unsuccessfully for remedial action to be taken against Bridges because of the Ralph incident, criticized the bar for its lack of transparency that only his successful records request ended.

“The report confirms what has been obvious to any neutral observer: that is the Board of Governors has acted unprofessionally and contrary to the values of our profession as attorneys and stewards of public justice,” says Papailiou, a public records and appellate litigator based in Yakima, Washington. “It is unfortunate that it took so long for the truth to come to light.”

As for the Washington Supreme Court, it met on May 7 to discuss Van Moppes’ report. Afterward, Chief Justice Stephens sent a letter to WSBA leadership saying, in part, “in light of the important issues raised in the report” the court was requesting an update on the board’s relationship with executive leadership and staff interactions with the board, among other topics.

“Please provide the update as soon as reasonably practicable, and please plan on providing an update covering the same information in six months and again in 12 months,” wrote Stephens, who also addressed the letter to the ombudsperson for WSBA matters.