Remaining claims in former deputy fair director’s lawsuit dismissed

Pacific County Superior Court Judge Michael Sullivan dismissed a wrongful termination lawsuit last Monday filed by the former deputy director of the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds.

Paula Jones filed the lawsuit against Grays Harbor County, current and former county commissioners and several fair employees and fair board members, alleging there was a “conspiracy” between county fair employees, county fair board members and the county commissioners to destroy her career and replace her with two men.

Jones, who was the acting fair director at the time, was terminated in 2008 after 22 years of working for the county. The lawsuit was filed last year in Grays Harbor Superior Court. Sullivan served as a visiting judge because the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges are suing the county commissioners. Jones had unsuccessfully submitted a claim for damages in the amount of $610,000 in 2010.

Seattle-based law firm Michael & Alexander, hired by the county, sought summary judgment to dismiss the lawsuit and all of its claims. Last month, Sullivan agreed to dismiss a defamation claim, retaliation claims and hostile work environment allegations, but he had left in place a a discriminatory discharge claim.

On Monday, the county argued for the judge to reconsider his decision and, after oral arguments conducted by a telephone hearing, Sullivan dismissed the entire lawsuit.

“We do plan an appeal because we think the retaliation claim is still strong,” said Chris Crew, Jones’ attorney. “We’re frustrated with how the procedure went and the ultimate decision. If we’re not able to settle the matter, we’ll appeal.”

Suzanne Kelly Michael of Michael & Sullivan had argued that the lawsuit was making baseless claims.

“Jones is unable to put forward any material evidence showing that the stated reasons the county terminated her employment — poor management skills, poor communication skills and a general lack of professionalism and ability — were not the actual reasons and that the real reason was because the mostly female Fair Board was biased against her because she was female or because she had previously complained about discriminatory conduct,” Kelly wrote in her motion for summary judgment. “In fact, no evidence whatsoever supports a claim for gender bias and Jones cannot point to even a single instance of protected activity that would support a retaliation claim.”

Kelly noted that in three years, Jones “cannot point to a single defamatory statement made about her.”

The entire lawsuit seems to stem from a single incident that happened in the summer of 2007, when a fair board member allegedly confronted Jones in a loud voice waving a piece of paper in front of her face. The incident made Jones afraid and she and then-fair director Debbie Adolphsen filed a police report on the incident, according to a deposition by Jones. The fair board member then resigned from the board, at Adolphsen’s insistence, according to interviews provided in the court file.

Kelly said that the incident happened beyond the statute of limitations for a hostile workplace claim. But Crew says in his response to summary judgment that the incident was just the start of the “conspiracy,” where fair board members were angry at Jones for forcing the resignation of one of their own. Eventually, Crew argues, the fair board and the county commissioners created a new position at the fair and took away some of Jones’ duties and gave them to a man. Then, Crew argues, they decided to eliminate her deputy director position at the fair and didn’t fairly consider her application for the full-time fair director job, which went to current director Mike Bruner.

“Mr. Bruner had no experience working at the fair or running a fair,” Jones said in her deposition. “He had previously worked for Montesano Parks and Recreation, not even close to the same thing as putting on a massive annual event such as the Grays Harbor County Fair.”

The 2008 fair was “the most successful Grays Harbor County Fair to this date ever held in terms of number of attendees and money raised,” Crew wrote. “As the goal of the director is to make the fair grow in attendees and raise more money, she hit the nail right on the head. No fair has done as well since.”

Kelly said that Jones may have been the acting director, but Adolphsen had been brought back as a consultant to help manage the fair.

Kelly wrote to the court that there is no evidence that the county wanted a man to work as the fair director.

“She cannot show that she was replaced by a man,” Kelly wrote. “Rather, her position was eliminated and her duties re-distributed. Her most substantial duties, including payroll, were re-distributed to female employees.”