Wash. man sues county over alleged racial discrimination during employment at jail

A swastika was left at a table where the former mental health worker was known to eat in the jail's break room

By Denver Pratt
The Bellingham Herald 
BELLINGHAM, Wash. — A Whatcom County man is suing the county, county sheriff's office and Compass Health over allegations that they discriminated and retaliated against him and created a hostile work environment while he was employed at the county jail because he is Black.

Fred A. Pulphus, of Custer, filed an amended lawsuit June 21 in Snohomish County Superior Court against Compass Health, Whatcom County, the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office and Corrections Chief Wendy Jones. Pulphus originally filed the lawsuit March 26 and had only named Compass Health, but amended the lawsuit to add Whatcom County and its officials. It was filed in Snohomish County because Compass Health is headquartered there, court records show.

Pulphus' lawsuit alleges that Compass Health, the county, sheriff's office and Jones violated the Washington State Law Against Discrimination, his 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law and interfered with his job due to his race.

Pulphus and his direct supervisor reported the discrimination, racism and hostile work environment multiple times, but Compass Health and county officials allegedly retaliated against Pulphus for reporting the issues, the court records show.

Pulphus' lawsuit states he's suffered lost wages, loss of enjoyment of life, traumatic stress, anxiety, mental anguish, mental injury, humiliation, harm to his reputation, loss of employment opportunities and other non-economic damages. He is seeking punitive damages, as well as damages for lost compensation and damages for emotional pain and suffering, according to court records.

Neither Compass Health nor Whatcom County have yet responded to Pulphus' lawsuit.

Racism and discrimination

Pulphus, who is Black, has worked in the mental health field for more than 20 years. He began his career in Whatcom County working with youth involved in the criminal justice system, the lawsuit states.

In mid-December 2018, Compass Health recruited Pulphus to work at the Whatcom County Jail due to his experience working with youth and vulnerable populations. After interviewing, Compass offered Pulphus a job at the county jail on the Jail/Juvenile Behavioral Health Team as a mental health professional, and Pulphus accepted the position, the court records state.

Compass provides behavioral and mental health services to adult and youth inmates at the county jail and is part of a healthcare team that works there alongside nurses and medical providers, the lawsuit states.

During his initial interview, Pulphus allegedly made an observation that he was the only Black person at the interview, to which the Compass Health manager of the jail behavioral health team replied with vulgarities, court records show.

Throughout the next two years, Pulphus' lawsuit says he was prejudged "as being inferior and incapable when he started working at the jail. Compass personnel demeaned, ignored, sidelined, and spoke aggressively toward him. They withheld basic information, professional courtesies, collaboration, and training."

A swastika and other racist symbols were left at a table where Pulphus was known to eat in a break room in the jail. Pulphus was also allegedly singled out by a coworker for eating donuts with his bare hands, even though other white coworkers ate donuts with their bare hands, the court records state.

The behavioral health team manager referred to Pulphus and his direct supervisor, who is also Black, as "homies" multiple times, made a racial slur when she took an armful of free things at a company event when vendors offered the items, and allegedly asked "Is Fred ghetto?" when Pulphus asked to use a company car instead of his own to travel to work, the court records show.

During a meeting with the behavioral health team manager and other team members, one of Pulphus' coworkers stated she could get him fired and said that she would allegedly recruit other colleagues to help get him fired, according to court records. The same coworker later stated she was "friends with everyone at the jail" and that she could get anyone fired, the lawsuit states.

In February 2019, Pulphus reported to his direct supervisor that two coworkers were harassing and making racist comments about him. Pulphus also reported to the behavioral health team manager that one of the coworkers was attempting to get him fired. The manager allegedly told Pulphus the two coworkers were bullies but took no action, the court records show.

Pulphus complained to Jones about his coworkers' harassment and racially motivated actions, but Jones and other county officials took no action, the lawsuit states. Pulphus also called the Compass company hotline to report the "harassment, hostility, and discrimination he was experiencing at the jail."

In May 2019, Pulphus' direct supervisor reported to the behavioral health team manager that a coworker was harassing and being racially discriminatory toward Pulphus. The team manager "scoffed and stated in response that there was 'Black privilege at Compass', implying Pulphus was receiving privileges over White employees because he was Black," the court records state.

Pulphus' direct supervisor also filed reports in August and September 2019 with upper management at Compass alerting them to the fact that coworkers were discriminating against Pulphus and one was attempting to get him fired, the lawsuit states. The behavioral health team manager allegedly told Pulphus' supervisor that he "needed to get 'thicker skin' and said that if the pair "were homies," Pulphus' supervisor couldn't be professional or unbiased in this matter, which could cause a problem, court records show.

Pulphus continued to report the racism and harassment and filed a complaint with Compass' Chief Executive Officer. In mid-November 2019, Pulphus had a meeting with a human resources representative, about the discrimination and hostility he was facing at work.

In late January 2020, a nursing supervisor at the jail told Whatcom County officials that Pulphus breached an inmate's privacy by sharing personal information with other members of the healthcare team and other people, the court records state.

On Jan. 23, 2020, Whatcom County officials banned Pulphus from working in the Whatcom County Jail. He was called by the behavioral health team manager on his way to work and was not given notice or an opportunity to discuss the allegations against him, the records state. He later met with Compass management in February 2020 and asked them to reinstate him.

Pulphus was allegedly banned due to a reported violation of state and federal laws, according to the lawsuit. Pulphus maintains the charge was false, the court records state.

"Jail Defendants' implementation of the ban was arbitrary and capricious. Jail Defendants implemented the ban, in whole or in part, in retaliation for Pulphus' complaints to Defendants Jones and Compass about (his coworkers') discriminatory actions toward Pulphus," the lawsuit states.

Pulphus was transferred to another facility under the supervision of someone who had previously expressed their dislike for him. Pulphus' lawsuit alleges this was in retaliation for complaining about the discrimination and hostile work environment.

On March 17, 2020, Pulphus filed a discrimination complaint against Compass Health with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Washington State Human Rights Commission. He also filed a grievance April 7, 2020, with his union against two of his coworkers and the jail behavioral health manager, court records show.

Pulphus asked Compass multiple times to take action, but the company allegedly did not, the records state.

Pulphus' lawsuit alleges that he was denied the process and disciplinary practices and policies extended to other employees and that Compass' treatment of him was discriminatory. Pulphus' lawsuit states that he has also been singled out by being required to appear for weekly one-on-one in-person meetings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for at least a year.

Because of Compass' actions, Pulphus has been denied access to promotions, pay increases and other employment and career opportunities, the lawsuit states.
(c)2021 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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