Defending a lawsuit that accuses the King County Sheriff’s Office and some of its top administrators of bias and other allegations has cost nearly $1 million in private attorneys’ fees and additional expenses, making it among the most expensive recent cases of its kind.
A lawsuit that accuses the King County Sheriff’s Office and some of its top administrators of bias and an array of other allegations has cost county taxpayers nearly $1 million in private attorneys’ fees and additional expenses, with the tally continuing to rise as the case heads toward trial.
The bulk of money spent to date to defend against the suit brought by one current and two fired sheriff’s deputies — about $837,000 — has been paid to Winterbauer & Diamond, a Seattle law firm specializing in employment and labor law, according to an accounting provided this month by the King County Office of Risk Management.
The county also has spent about $96,000 on “additional litigation expenses” related to the case, such as covering fees for expert witnesses, transcription services, copying and travel costs. An additional $52,000 has gone to legal fees related to an arbitration hearing for a deputy not involved in the lawsuit, but whose firing has ties to one of its plaintiffs.
In all, the $984,145 spent to date to defend the lawsuit makes it the county’s most expensive active-liability case assigned to outside counsel, and the second-most expensive such case in the past five years, the accounting shows.
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Steven Winterbauer, the attorney hired to defend the county, did not return requests for comment last week.
The prosecutor’s office typically handles civil litigation for King County’s various governmental agencies, but it sometimes hires private lawyers “for cases that are complicated and are likely to involve protracted litigation, especially discovery,” David Eldred, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney, said in an email.
“While we handle many civil lawsuits within the Prosecutor’s Office, we can’t handle all of the more complex matters ourselves,” Eldred added. “In this case, Mr. Winterbauer’s firm had previously represented the sheriff’s office on some related labor arbitrations, so it made sense to hire his firm.”
A spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said in an email last week the costs of the lawsuit are driven by the plaintiffs and their attorneys.
The expenses have included responding to “expansive” discovery requests and evidentiary challenges that have required the county to produce nearly 1 million pages of documentation, conduct forensic video analysis and incur other substantial expenses, the email said.
“The county must spend money defending itself against the plaintiff’s line of attacks,” Sgt. Cindi West said in the email. “That’s just part of litigation.”
The lawsuit’s primary contentions are that King County Sheriff John Urquhart and other high-ranking sheriff’s commanders have engaged in a pattern of workplace hostility marked by gender-based discrimination, harassment and retaliation against certain deputies.
The plaintiffs include Sgt. Diana Neff, a deputy now based in Maple Valley, and former Metro Transit deputies Amy Shoblom and Louis Caballero. Neff claims she was harassed and secretly investigated before being involuntarily transferred out of the Shoreline precinct.
Shoblom and Caballero, whom Urquhart fired for falsely claiming a Metro bus driver swore at them during an argument, claim they were unfairly targeted after complaining that Shoblom’s sergeant had been sexually harassing her.
Aside from their central claims, the plaintiffs have brought forward an array of secondary allegations from various deputies, including sworn testimony that Urquhart directed his internal-affairs squad not to document a former deputy’s claim that he raped her in 2002; and that the sheriff’s friend and hand-picked chief of staff failed a polygraph exam required for hiring. The plaintiffs have argued those and other allegations help demonstrate a wider pattern of discrimination and mismanagement festering within the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff and the county have roundly disputed the suit’s various contentions and counter that the sheriff’s office has handled internal-investigations matters appropriately, including its treatment of Neff, Shoblom and Caballero.
Late last year, Winterbauer tried to get the lawsuit tossed out of court, but a judge denied his motion for summary judgment and ruled that the case should go forward. Initially filed in April 2015, the lawsuit had been set for trial later this month, but has since been rescheduled for May.
Including this lawsuit, King County has hired outside legal counsel to defend 19 liability lawsuits over the past five years, according to the Office of Risk Management.
Only one of the 19 cases has cost more to defend than the current lawsuit involving the sheriff’s office. That case — an age-discrimination suit involving the Wastewater Treatment Division — went through a trial and multiple appeals, with the county ultimately prevailing at the State Court of Appeals. In all, the county spent $2.83 million on outside litigation for the case.
Such legal costs for county departments generally are covered by the Risk Management Fund, an appropriation within the county’s two-year, $11 billion budget. Each county department pays into the Risk Management Fund with a proportionate share from its own budget allocation based on loss history and other factors.
“So, for example, over time the (Metropolitan King County) Council allocates money from the sheriff’s office budget to replenish the Risk Fund in proportion to how much the sheriff’s office is costing the Risk Fund,” Eldred said.
Aside from the lawsuit involving the sheriff’s office, the county has five other ongoing liability cases assigned to private attorneys. Collectively, those cases have cost about $1 million to date, risk-management figures show.
While the sheriff’s office weighs in on legal decisions, the county’s risk-management office and county executive have ultimate authority in deciding whether to settle a case or take it to trial. The risk-management office can approve settlements of up to $100,000; the executive must authorize settlements of $100,000 or more.
“The cost-effectiveness of the lawsuit must be weighed against maintaining the public’s trust,” said West, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.