Judge rules for Pruitt in his lawsuit against City of Edmonds

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Council President Vivian Olson denied in attempt to dismiss case

Reprinted from the Edmonds Beacon (May. 16, 2024)
By Brian Soergel

A United States District Court judge has ruled against an attempt by Edmonds City Council President Vivian Olson partially joined by former Mayor Mike Nelson and the City of Edmonds – to dismiss a racial discrimination suit filed by Sherman Pruitt.

Olson told the Beacon she would not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.

Pruitt, who is Black, is the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe police chief north of Darrington. In late 2020, Pruitt was offered the police job after the retirement of Al Compaan. Nelson chose Pruitt over Acting Police Chief Jim Lawless, who had served the city for a quarter century.

Nelson rescinded the appointment after questions arose over Pruitt’s past, which included alleged domestic violence. Pruitt was also terminated from a Seattle Police Department training program for a harassment-related incident.

Nelson said at the time that the decision to take the offer off the table was due to the City receiving information that Pruitt had omitted relevant details from his application materials when applying for a previous position in Lake Stevens.

From Judge Thomas S. Zilly’s order: “The City Councilwoman Olson does not dispute that Plaintiff Sherman Pruitt is a member of a protected class, but she contends that none of the other elements of a disparate treatment claim are pleaded against her. …

“The Court disagrees and concludes that Plaintiff (Pruitt) has pleaded the elements of a prima facie case under the Washington Law Against Discrimination because Plaintiff alleges that (1) he applied and was qualified for the police chief job, (2) he was rejected when his offer of employment was withdrawn, and (3) the police chief job was given to a white candidate (4) with the same qualifications.”

The candidate is current Police Chief Michelle Bennett.

Olson, according to the court document, said she is entitled to legislative immunity from Pruitt’s claims per 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981.

Nelson and the City, the court wrote, maintain that Pruitt’s federal claims against them are improperly based on the “cat’s paw” doctrine. The cat’s paw, or “subordinate bias” doctrine, applies when “an unbiased decision-maker … disciplines an employee unknowingly due to a (subordinate) supervisor’s bias.”

Pruitt, however, alleges that Nelson knowingly relied on Olson’s allegedly discriminatory investigation and the City withdrew the job offer because of the intentional conduct of Olson. The judge ruled against that, as well.

In an exclusive two-part interview with the Edmonds Beacon in April 2021, Pruitt claimed his race was a factor in him losing the job.

“I think a lot of the way I was treated was because I’m Black,” he said. “The way I was defamed and looked at and tried to be judged was because I’m Black, and they did not want to have a Black executive in charge of that police department”.

Pruitt is represented by Beth Barrett Bloom and Jay Corker Free of Bloom Law, employment attorneys. He is seeking lost wages, including front and back pay, lost bonuses, lost medical and retirement benefits, and other lost monetary benefits of employment – compensatory damages for emotional harm in an amount to be proven at trial, attorneys’ fees, and other damages.

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