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Judge: Seattle Firefighter's Whistle-Blower Suit Can Go To Trial

The Seattle Times via YellowBrix

October 31, 2010

A judge on Friday denied a request by city lawyers to throw out a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a high-ranking Seattle firefighter who alleges that he was the victim of workplace retaliation for exposing an ethics scandal in the Fire Marshal’s Office.

After a nearly three-hour hearing on Friday, King Superior Court Judge Michael Hayden ruled that Jim Woodbury’s civil suit will be heard before a jury in December.

Woodbury claims that he was demoted from deputy chief to battalion chief in January 2009 after clashing with Fire Chief Gregory Dean over the discipline of a fire inspector who failed to bill Qwest Field for nearly $200,000 in fire services and demanded free backstage passes to a Hannah Montana concert.

Woodbury filed a whistle-blower complaint with city ethics investigators accusing Dean of failing to punish the inspector, Lt. Milt Footer.

But in August 2009, two months after the suit was filed in King County Superior Court, Woodbury was promoted back to deputy chief and his salary was increased to the level it was before the demotion, said his attorney Jack Sheridan.

Though Woodbury has returned to his old position and is working in the department’s operations division, in a position he enjoys, Sheridan argues that the suit should still receive a public airing before a jury. Sheridan said Woodbury hopes to be awarded tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages and payment to address his “emotional harm.”

A spokeswoman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office said Friday that city lawyers plan to return to court to ask Hayden to bar Woodbury from asking jurors to award him damages for emotional harm. A date for that hearing has not been set, Sheridan said.

Sheridan said that Woodbury lost between $35,000 and $50,000 in wages during the several months he was demoted. In 2009, a Fire Department spokeswoman said a deputy chief is paid between $124,000 and $146,000. A battalion chief is paid between $109,000 and $137,000.

“The big thing about the case is if we don’t bring it forward, the public won’t hear about it,” Sheridan said on Thursday.

The city, in its motion to dismiss the case, disputed Woodbury’s whistle-blower claim and called his arguments “weak.”

“In total, Woodbury was reduced in rank for 16 pay periods. Woodbury is not a victim of retaliation. He is a very short-term victim of budgetary cutbacks at a time when layoffs and furlough days are the norm for many city employees.”

When Woodbury was demoted in January 2009, he was a 22-year veteran and sixth-most senior of the 11 deputy fire chiefs.

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Footer had worked at Qwest Field for seven years in an unusual arrangement where First & Goal, the Paul Allen company that owns the Seahawks, paid his salary even though he was a Fire Department employee. His job was to inspect events at the stadium and attached exhibition center.

A five-month investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission concluded that Dean did not sufficiently discipline Footer for failing to collect the money from First & Goal and for demanding the concert passes from a KeyArena employee. The investigation did not find that Footer personally benefitted from failure to collect from First & Goal.

Footer resigned from the Fire Marshal’s Office in May 2009. Woodbury’s suit claims the demotion was direct retaliation for challenging Dean’s punishment of Footer as well as misconduct by two other Fire Marshal’s Office employees.

Woodbury claims in his suit that he clashed with Dean over light punishment meted out to two other firefighters in the marshal’s office âEU$" one who admitted stealing $400 from a department bank account but repaid it, and another who had OK’d safety permits for boats he didn’t inspect.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.


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