Share story

When a light-rail train carried commuters nearly two miles through Seattle with an open door in late 2011, officials blamed the driver for putting passengers at risk.

No one was hurt, but Karen Rispoli was fired for what officials at King County Metro — which runs the light-rail system — deemed as two major infractions.

Transit officials later reduced Rispoli’s discipline to two suspensions but ordered she be transferred out of the rail division for good.

“Given your total disregard for passenger safety and repeated untruthfulness with me about your misconduct,” Rail Operations Base Chief Terry Rhoads wrote to Rispoli in a Nov. 21, 2011, letter, “I find that retaining you as a rail operator would not be appropriate.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

But nearly two years later, an arbitrator hearing a union’s grievance about Rispoli’s punishment largely cleared her of wrongdoing.

Arbitrator Michael D. Rappaport’s ruling Sept. 11 found Metro had no cause to suspend or transfer Rispoli. At worst, he found, she had engaged in only a minor infraction that warranted an oral reminder.

He ordered Metro to give Rispoli her rail job back and pay her “for any money or benefits lost as a result” of the wrongful discipline.

“What (Metro) did here is imposed discipline first, and then reverse-engineered the reasons for it,” said Michael Subit, an attorney who handled the grievance for Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 587. “For whatever reason, the higher-ups did not want her in rail.”

But why would Rispoli’s bosses want to get rid of her?

Rail Operations Superintendent Tom Jones declined to comment, referring all questions to Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.

“The arbitrator’s decision speaks for itself and, as required, we’re complying with that decision,” Switzer said in an email.

But Bruce Laing, a 35-year Metro employee and Rispoli’s friend, has his own theory.

He said, “One of the chiefs that I interact with told me, ‘She’s a pain in the ass. She’s a troublemaker and we’re going to figure this out.’ ”

Rispoli has a history of challenging employers dating back nearly three decades.

From 1986 to 1995, she filed lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, wrongful termination, discrimination and other claims against three employers, including a private health club, Seattle’s municipal water department and King County’s Department of Youth Services (DYS).

Each time, defendants paid Rispoli to settle out of court, records show.

Hired by Metro in 1995

Rispoli was hired as a Metro bus driver in 1995, shortly after DYS fired her. She later received $260,000 from King County to drop a wrongful-termination suit against DYS.

Over the next 10 years, Rispoli testified as a key witness in a string of employee-filed civil suits against DYS, including a racial-discrimination suit that won a fired employee a $780,000 judgment.

In 2000, Metro fired Rispoli, citing her poor relations with customers, but she won her job back through arbitration and later sued. In a 2005 federal suit, she claimed Metro dismissed her because she refused demands that she not testify against the county and submit to psychological exams. The court eventually dismissed the suit.

“I’ve been painted as crazy, sue-happy and a kid nobody wanted,” said, Rispoli, 55, whose parents abandoned her at 12. “The truth is, I grew up in Chicago where the motto was, ‘If the cops won’t help you, file a lawsuit as protection.’

“It’s not about the money,” she added, “but money is the only language corrupt organizations like Metro understand.”

In 2009, after she and other bus drivers transferred to Sound Transit Central Link to help launch the new light-rail system, Rispoli quickly complained about safety.

“Trains were almost bashing into each other, and she was one of the drivers who spoke up,” said Laing, who is pursuing his own legal claim against Metro over a separate disciplinary matter. “They just gave her the brushoff.”

Switzer, who declined to comment about specific allegations, countered: “We take safety issues very seriously.”

In April 2009, Rispoli reported a stop-signal problem caused her to nearly hit another train in Seattle’s transit tunnel. Metro suspended her three days for safety violations, but Rispoli grieved the discipline — and won.

She also filed a whistle-blower’s complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and contacted the Federal Transit Authority (FTA).

An OSHA investigator dismissed her retaliation claims, but the FTA’s oversight contractor recommended Sound Transit make safety modifications to its signals at Pine Street. Metro made those changes in 2010.

Latest dispute

Rispoli’s latest dispute with Metro began Oct. 24, 2011.

While driving a train stopped at the Rainier Beach Station, she noticed a door in the last car stuck open. She reported the problem and supervisors soon took the car out of service for repairs, returning it to her train the next day.

But on Oct. 25, while stopped at the Stadium Station, Rispoli found the door stuck open again. She got permission to try to fix it, and with help from a passenger, Rispoli eventually managed to pull a lever she thought would close and deactivate the faulty door.

After she pulled the so-called “cut-out” lever, Rispoli’s monitor showed the door was immobilized. So, Rispoli continued on her route. But the door remained open.

“Apparently, both (Rispoli) and Management believed that the train could not operate with an open door,” an arbitrator later found.

The train traveled three more stops before a security guard tried to warn Rispoli about the door. Rispoli later testified she didn’t hear the warning and kept driving.

Finally, when her train pulled into Westlake Station, another guard told her about the door. The train was taken out of service.

Metro proposed Rispoli be fired for two major infractions: failing to follow procedures and disregarding a security guard.

In an email sent weeks before a required hearing to decide her discipline, Jones, the rail superintendent, agreed Rispoli should be fired, “as long as there is no mechanism for a return to rail should a termination get reversed.”

Metro ultimately reduced Rispoli’s punishment to four unpaid days of suspension, with an involuntary transfer to buses.

Rispoli called the punishment “devastating.” She was transferred back to drive Rapid Ride bus routes. Due to emotional stress over her situation, Rispoli said, she has since taken medical leave.

Nearly two years later, Rappaport, the arbitrator, found Metro erroneously had trained Rispoli and other drivers that trains cannot operate with an open door, even though they can.

He also agreed with the union’s argument that Metro tried to “recast” Rispoli’s charges to justify more serious discipline against her.

Finding no evidence she had lied, disregarded the guard or deliberately drove with an open door, Rappaport concluded Rispoli only “was subject to discipline for what was a minor infraction” — not checking the door before moving the train.

He reversed the suspensions and ordered Metro give Rispoli her rail job back.

“With due respect to the arbitrator’s decision,” Switzer said, “we continue to have confidence in and stand by our disciplinary process, which we believe is thorough and fair.”

Rispoli said she feels “totally exonerated.”

She has yet to return to her $30-per-hour job and said she’s still waiting for “thousands of dollars” in back-pay. Meantime, she has filed a tort claim against Metro, alleging retaliation.

Lewis Kamb: or 206-464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.