A King County jury ruled on Thursday that the Port of Seattle wrongfully fired two employees, Deanna Zachrisson and Elaine Lincoln, in 2015.
Back in 2015, the Port of Seattle launched an internal investigation into the two employees after e-mails emerged in which Zachrisson and Lincoln, both senior employees in the Airport Dining and Retail group at the airport, called a black business owner a "thug." The e-mails surfaced as part of discovery in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought on at the time by three minority-owned airport concession businesses. Lawyers for Zachrisson and Lincoln argued the emails were dug up by port commissioner John Creighton in an attempt to retaliate against them. The port's internal investigation found no evidence of racial bias from Zachrisson and Lincoln, but fired the two anyway for allegedly violating the port's e-mail policy.
According to a trial brief filed by the former port employees, their firing was "mere pretext to hide retaliation." Zachrisson and Lincoln's lawyers argued that Creighton had drafted and helped pass a motion at the port commission back in 2012 that was favorable to minority-owned concession businesses, but against Federal Aviation Administration rules that don't permit preferential treatment. Zachrisson alerted the FAA, and the FAA then told the port that it would be putting its federal funding at risk. Zachrisson and Lincoln also filed an ethics complaint against Creighton, who had received donations from the concessionaires for his campaign, and talked to KING 5.
Lawyers for Zachrisson and Lincoln argued that their actions as whistleblowers set Creighton against them, and on Thursday, a King County jury agreed.
"Commissioner Creighton learned about the two emails from the Concessionaires," Zachrisson and Lincoln's lawyers wrote in a trial brief. "Harboring animosity over their continued refusal to implement the illegal lease extensions, Creighton seized upon the opportunity to discredit the ADR staff." Creighton filed a public records request on the employees' e-mails and turned them over to port staff. He posted about the e-mails on social media and talked to reporters. The employees were placed on administrative leave and subsequently fired by then-CEO Ted Fick.
Fick later resigned over "personnel issues" and controversy over accepting gifts from port tenants and awarding himself a $24,500 bonus. Creighton was recently voted out of office, losing his port commission seat to upstart challenger Ryan Calkins.
"By recognizing the illegal retaliation against these women, the jury has sent a message to all employers,” Beth Bloom, attorney for the former employees, said in a statement. “Employers must not fire employees for refusing to break the law or reporting misconduct. Protecting whistleblowers is the best guarantee we have to ensure that the government serves the interests of the people.”