Wash. DOC denies CO's racism allegations after lawsuit

The officer alleges he’s been passed up for numerous training and promotion opportunities, and he remains concerned about losing his job amid health problems caused by mistreatment


By Jerzy Shedlock
The Columbian

YACOLT, Wash. — The Washington Department of Corrections denies all of the allegations outlined in a lawsuit filed by a Larch Corrections Center employee claiming racial discrimination and a hostile work environment.

The Department of Corrections filed its answer Nov. 19 to the lawsuit filed about a month earlier in Clark County Superior Court by corrections counselor Sydney Clark.

Clark alleges that he’s been passed up for numerous training and promotion opportunities, and he remains concerned about losing his job amid health problems caused by mistreatment.

Clark, who is black, says he’s been targeted by Larch staff for more than three years, with Superintendent Lisa Oliver-Estes, who is white, at the center of many of his complaints. Oliver-Estes “runs Larch and is the ringleader behind the blatant discrimination and retaliation Mr. Clark has experienced for the last few years as a Larch employee,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit contains numerous claims and specific alleged incidents of discrimination. DOC denies all of the claims, including that four female employees were smuggling mail and contraband outside the prison for inmates.

DOC agrees that Clark filed a grievance against the department in July 2015 for unfair labor practices. Larch reached a settlement agreement that included removing letters of discipline from Clark’s personnel file. Clark says the letters were put back in his file without reason, but DOC claims that’s not the case.

It says that Oliver-Estes did not refuse to consider Clark for a promotion in December 2016. Clark was told he missed a deadline, and the prison didn’t have enough information about his education. The lawsuit asserts that both reasons for Clark being denied consideration are untrue. The answer states, “Mr. Clark submitted his application five days after the closing date.”

DOC further denied that white employees were treated more favorably when promotions were available.

Clark also said in his lawsuit that potential violence by a former Larch inmate spilled out onto the streets of Vancouver, at the direction of DOC.

On Dec. 23, 2016, Clark was approached by the former inmate at the Grand Central Station Fred Meyer. The man, whom Clark did not recognize, rushed at him, accused him of making trouble for prison employees and threatened his life, according to the lawsuit.

Clark reported the incident to the Vancouver Police Department. The officer tasked with investigating the threats discussed it with Oliver-Estes, and then refused to discuss their progress with Clark moving forward, according to the lawsuit.

Clark claims his life was put in further danger at work due to the confrontation. About a week after the alleged incident at the store, DOC’s safety plan required its prisons to post a photo of the former inmate for all staff to see throughout the Larch campus. The photo was only posted in a control room, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Larch management recruited the former inmate to attack Clark but doesn’t go as far as accusing anyone in particular.

“DOC admits only that Ms. Oliver-Estes posted (the alleged assailant’s) photograph and implemented a safety plan once she was advised of his identity. DOC denies the remaining allegations,” the answer affidavit states.

The response to Clark’s lawsuit was filed by a legal assistant with the state Office of the Attorney General Torts Division, which defends claims and lawsuits against all state agencies, officers and employees.

DOC asserts that Clark is not entitled to any judgment or relief he seeks through the lawsuit, which it argues should be dismissed with prejudice — meaning it cannot be refiled. It further states that the lawsuit and court summons were never properly served on DOC and Oliver-Estes.

In the sixth of seven defense claims offered by DOC, its lawyers state that some or all of Clark’s claims “are barred because any alleged harassment suffered by (Clark) cannot be imputed to DOC due to positions held by the alleged harassers and DOC’s prompt, reasonable, and adequate responses to (Clark’s) claims once made.”

The civil case was assigned to Judge Robert Lewis on Dec. 3. Both parties are required to deliver a status report to the court by Feb. 22, court documents show.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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