Town mayor accused of ‘offensive physical conduct’

Coupeville’s former clerk filed a tort accusing the mayor of unwanted physical touching and more.

The town of Coupeville’s former clerk/treasurer recently filed a tort claim accusing Mayor Molly Hughes of unwanted physical touching, creation of a hostile work environment based on gender bias, retaliation and wrongful termination.

Jennifer Carpenter is asking for as much as $2.5 million in damages, although her complaint states that she cannot propose a definitive amount since it’s up to a jury to decide.

“For the purposes of setting insurance reserves she is claiming an amount of $2.5 million based on her actual and potential lost wages, emotional distress damages and compensatory damages,” the claim states. “This damage amount is supported by similar discrimination and retaliation cases.”

The claim pointed to several other cases in which damages exceeded $1 million. Carpenter, an Oak Harbor resident, is represented by Nolan Lim, a Seattle employment law attorney.

Under state law, a plaintiff seeking damages from a governmental entity must first file a tort claim, also known as a complaint for damages, directly to the government. If the issue is unresolved after 60 days, the plaintiff can then file a lawsuit in court.

The Whidbey News-Times obtained a copy of the complaint through a public records request.

In January, Hughes told the News-Times that the town had been without a clerk/treasurer and a planning director since November 2023. She said both Carpenter and Planning Director Jesse Davis — who started on Oct. 17 — left for “personal reasons.” In addition, the town had advertised for a fiscal clerk because the current clerk “felt like she needed to resign due to personal reasons,” the mayor said. However, the town was able to accommodate her, leading her to stay.

On Monday, Hughes said would like to respond to the allegations, but the risk pool attorney advised her not to because of possible pending litigation.

The tort alleges that Hughes physically touched Carpenter without consent on multiple occasions, including touching “buttocks, shoulders and playing with her hair.” The tort alleges that Hughes had a pattern of “offensive physical conduct” toward women under her supervision.

Carpenter claims that Hughes subjected female employees to a hostile work environment based on gender. Hughes allegedly was rude and yelled at female staff members while male employees did not experience the behavior, the tort states. The claim alleges that a male employee regularly violated town policies and falsified timesheets, but she turned a blind eye to the conduct.

“In contrast, Mayor Hughes on several occasions would make gender stereotypical comments about females, including that she didn’t want to hire ‘women with kids,’ complain about female employees using leave to care for kids and female employees using leave for feminine issues,” the tort states.

In addition, the tort claims that Hughes retaliated after Carpenter complained to a council member about the unwanted touching and hostile work environment. Carpenter alleges that she later told the mayor that she needed to take full-time Washington Paid Family Leave, but the mayor fired her “on the pretextual reason that the town could not afford to have her away through February 2024.” The town didn’t hire a new clerk/treasurer until February, the complaint states.

As is the regular policy, the town forwarded the tort to its risk pool to handle.