City hit with sanction in lawsuit alleging gender bias

The city of Oak Harbor must pay nearly $10,000 for a discovery violation in a lawsuit brought by a former police captain who alleges gender bias, unequal pay and wrongful termination, court documents show.

Teri Gardner filed the complaint for damages and a jury demand in Island County Superior Court in 2017, but the case is still in relatively early phases. Her 20-year career in law enforcement ended in 2017 amid controversy over morale issues and allegations of unfair treatment of officers within the Oak Harbor Police Department.

Gardner was paid less than her predecessor and successor, as well as male sergeants who served under her, the lawsuit claims.

Last week, Judge Vickie Churchill ordered the city to pay $9,375 in fees and costs to Gardner’s attorney, Joan Mell, of Fircrest, for work she did to compel the city to provide her with city emails and other documents she requested.

Under court rules, each side is obliged to provide relevant evidence the other side requested as part of discovery.

During an interview, Mell said such a sanction is very rare.

“It’s never happened in my career,” she said.

While Churchill also ordered the city to produce the emails and other documents, Mell isn’t optimistic. She said she will go forward with the presumption that city officials have hidden records that are damaging to the city.

A declaration filed by the city from the information services director states that he ran a search of city emails — specifically from the mayor, the police chief and others — using key words provided by Mell in June and got 11,000 results. He requested additional search terms to narrow the search but didn’t get any.

But when he re-ran the same search terms of the same individuals’ emails last month, only 385 emails were retrieved. He wrote that he didn’t know why there was a difference but that the city didn’t delete any emails.

In a motion to compel discovery, Mell outlines her efforts to obtain the information from the city, which is being represented by Seattle employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. It states that the city was repeatedly non responsive to requests for supplementary discovery, missed deadlines, produced documents that were not responsive and then refused to provide documents on grounds that they were not relevant.

Mell said the attorney representing the city even admitted in court that she had removed privileged material without providing the necessary log.

The city’s attorney, however, argued in court documents that Mell’s version of events was not accurate, her discovery requests were overbroad, the city did provide hundreds of pages of relevant documents and Mell failed to provide necessary search terms.

The attorney wrote that Mell’s request was an example of her “ongoing improper conduct” and her “attempts to harass the city into providing improper discovery demands.”

Mell said it’s “silliness” for city officials to continue with a trial that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars when they could just “make it right” and settle with Gardner.

Neither the attorney representing the city nor the city administrator returned a call for comment.

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