A jury awarded $16 million to two former Port of Seattle employees it determined were wrongfully fired, among the biggest verdicts of its kind in state history. A settlement between the plaintiffs and the Port caps damages at $8 million, with all sides agreeing not to appeal.
The Port of Seattle will pay $8 million to two former employees it wrongfully fired in its largest-ever settlement for an employment case.
Deanna Zachrisson and Elaine Lincoln, who had worked in the Port’s airport retail division, claimed in a lawsuit they were ousted for opposing lease concessions to certain minority businesses owned by friends and political supporters of a now-former Port commissioner. The Port said it terminated the women in 2015 after determining they’d exchanged offensive emails violating its code of conduct.
The settlement is the latest fallout stemming from a yearslong controversy over racial discrimination and restaurant leases at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The taxpayer-subsidized Port has faced two lawsuits over the issue that, as of May, had cost it $1.7 million in outside legal fees alone. That doesn’t include the cost of the Zachrisson and Lincoln trial, which lasted more than a month.
The Port’s costs could have been much higher without the settlement, which was reached just before a King County Superior Court jury determined Thursday it should pay $16.1 million — $7.2 million to Zachrisson and $8.9 million to Lincoln. The settlement caps total damages at $8 million, with all parties agreeing not to appeal, according to the Port and a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
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The jury award was among the highest in Washington state history for an employment case, according to Jury Verdicts Northwest, a firm that tracks civil verdicts.
“The verdict is a tremendous victory for our community and for our clients who courageously refused to turn away when they saw abuses of power taking place at the Port,” Beth Bloom, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “We hope the Port of Seattle will take a hard look at their responsibility and fix the broken system that led to the firing of two dedicated, excellent and valued employees.”
Peter McGraw, a Port spokesman, said: “We continue to believe they clearly violated Port policy by disparaging tenants and colleagues over email.”
John Creighton, the Port commissioner at the center of the plaintiffs’ allegations, said he had nothing to do with the firing of Zachrisson and Lincoln but believes it was the right decision. Creighton cited “the extreme disruption to the organization of emails written by the plaintiffs that contained disparaging and offensive comments not only about Port tenants but also fellow Port colleagues,” adding they “would not be able to effectively perform their jobs going forward.”
Creighton has said he championed the cause of minority-owned businesses and never made promises he would vote in a particular way in exchange for campaign contributions. He had been the longest-serving commissioner until losing his re-election bid in November to Ryan Calkins.
The Port has taken fire over its leasing practices at Sea-Tac Airport from multiple fronts. For years, several minority-owned businesses complained that the Port gave better lease terms to nonminority-owned firms. The business owners found a sympathetic ear in Creighton, one of five elected officials who govern the Port.
The owners of three such businesses were among the largest donors to Creighton’s political campaigns over the years, socializing with him at Seahawks games and other events. According to court records and testimony at trial, Creighton worked with a lawyer for the businesses to draft a Port resolution that would effectively give them more time to earn a return on their investment by renegotiating or extending their leases.
The Port of Seattle Commission unanimously adopted a version offered by a different commissioner in September 2012. But Zachrisson and Lincoln raised concerns that the measure would run afoul of Federal Aviation Administration regulations on competitive leasing. The Port’s general counsel agreed, and the directive wasn’t implemented.
The three businesses sued the Port in 2014, alleging that their leases were “significantly less favorable than the lease terms offered to nonminority owned businesses.” The Port denied this, countering that it had provided the plaintiff businesses with hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial relief.
In the course of litigation, the business-owner plaintiffs obtained emails from Zachrisson and Lincoln that referred to one co-owner, an African American, as a “thug” and a “criminal.” They described Creighton as an “idiot” and a “puppet.”
Creighton learned of the emails from the businesses suing the Port, and made them public by directing a Port staffer to file a public-records request.
After the emails were read aloud during a Commission meeting, Creighton pledged on Twitter to “clean house & work to restore our reputation.” He then contacted a community activist about the emails, which he called “racist,” and urged him to “publicize this behavior and prevent port staff from trying to white wash it,” according to correspondence filed in court.
A Port investigator didn’t believe that Zachrisson and Lincoln’s emailing warranted termination, and relayed the women’s belief to the Port’s general counsel that Creighton retaliated against them, according to court records and testimony at trial.
The Port’s investigation found no evidence of racial bias but concluded that Zachrisson and Lincoln violated its email policy. They were fired in August 2015.
Less than a year later, the Port settled the lawsuit brought by the minority-owned businesses and extended their leases by between 13 months and five years. The businesses dropped their request for damages and attorney’s fees, according to the Port.
Zachrisson and Lincoln, for their part, acknowledged their emails were inappropriate but denied they were motivated by race. They filed suit in September 2016.
Some advocates of minority businesses say they are sorry to see Creighton leave the Port. Frank Irigon, who serves on the board of two Asian and Pacific Islander organizations, said he believes Creighton was acting to support minorities and not to reward his political donors.
“That’s his job as a Port commissioner,” said Irigon, whom The Times contacted at Creighton’s suggestion. “To do what he can, within the constraints of the law, to promote diversity and inclusion at the Port of Seattle.”
Information in this article, originally published Dec. 1, 2017, was corrected Dec. 1, 2017. A previous version of this story gave incorrect amounts for the jury award.