Former Tacoma schools lawyer sues district, alleges sabotage by her successor

Former Tacoma Public Schools attorney Shannon McMinimee, right, makes an argument to Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff in a hearing Sept. 16, 2011. McMinimee, who left the district in 2016, has sued for breach of contract in a dispute over her departure.
Former Tacoma Public Schools attorney Shannon McMinimee, right, makes an argument to Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff in a hearing Sept. 16, 2011. McMinimee, who left the district in 2016, has sued for breach of contract in a dispute over her departure. News Tribune file photo

A former attorney for Tacoma Public Schools is suing the district, alleging that her successor is working to destroy her career.

Shannon McMinimee contends the new attorney, Renee Trueblood, doesn’t like her, and that those feelings have led to various troubles for McMinimee and violations of her severance agreement with the district.

“That is what we believe is driving this,” said Matthew Crotty, one of the attorneys representing McMinimee.

District spokesman Dan Voelpel said in a statement: “We regard the allegations as utterly baseless and without merit. We will be aggressively defending the district and the staff members identified in the complaint. Our superintendent and other employees acted extremely ethically — as is our practice.”

The lawsuit, filed July 5 in Pierce County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages.

It gives this account of how McMinimee left the district and how her successor came to sabotage her:

McMinimee was the district’s attorney from 2011 until 2016 when she resigned to care for her father after he was hospitalized in Yakima.

Days before she planned to inform Superintendent Carla Santorno that she was resigning, Santorno called her into a meeting on Sept. 1, 2016 that included the assistant superintendent of human resources.

At the meeting, Santorno gave McMinimee the paperwork for her resignation. They did not discuss why she was being given the severance agreement and the three parted after a brief meeting, according to the lawsuit.

“Given that Ms. McMinimee had planned to share with Ms. Santorno her need to resign the following week, Ms. McMinimee was amenable to accepting the Severance Agreement and Release,” the lawsuit states.

Santorno did not imply that she was being asked to resign in lieu of termination, and she wrote McMinimee a “glowing letter of recommendation,” the suit says.

“They had a very close relationship,” Crotty said of McMinimee and Santorno.

McMinimee’s resignation, the lawsuit states, “was approved at a Tacoma School Board meeting where Ms. Santorno announced the ‘bad news’ that ‘Shannon resigned’ and praised and thanked Ms. McMinimee for her contributions to the district, calling her ‘an incredible force in Tacoma Public Schools’ who would be missed.”

In 2017, the school district hired Trueblood as McMinimee’s replacement. That’s when McMinimee alleges her troubles began.

The lawsuit states that, “... because of insecurity or some other reason, Ms. Trueblood simply does not like Ms. McMinimee and is now taking steps through her role as General Counsel and as supervisor of the Public Records Office to ensure that Ms. McMinimee’s legal and professional career is destroyed.”

It alleges Trueblood told others she didn’t like “being in the shadow” of McMinimee or her predecessor and “regularly spoke derogatorily” of them. It also says Trueblood has targeted Tacoma Public Schools employees “who she believes are or were in contact with Ms. McMinimee for discipline and demotion.”

According to the suit, Trueblood also told others that McMinimee was fired by the school district.

In 2017, when McMinimee applied to work for the Yakima School District, she answered “no” to a question on the application that asked if she had ever resigned to avoid being discharged.

After McMinimee was hired, the Yakima Education Association requested Tacoma Public Schools records about her, and the Public Records Office, which Trueblood supervises, released them without first telling McMinimee.

The lawsuit alleges the records led the Yakima School District to start the process of firing McMinimee for allegedly lying on her application.

McMinimee sued Yakima on May 10, after which she alleges Yakima asked Tacoma to “find,” “supplement” or otherwise “discover” a document to help Yakima justify firing her.

Tacoma “magically discovered” such a document, her lawsuit against Tacoma says.

Tacoma schools told McMinimee the document, called “Severance Agreement Notes,” had been found on Santorno’s work computer and that the district intended to provide it to the Yakima Education Association as part of its records request.

The document appeared to be talking points for the Sept. 1, 2016, meeting, the lawsuit states, but McMinimee contends it doesn’t reflect the conversation she and Santorno had.

The metadata of the computer file shows the document was modified May 23, 2018, the lawsuit notes.

After getting the newly discovered document from the school district, McMinimee wrote Santorno: “At no time did you tell me that the Tacoma School Board had decided to fire me. At no time did you state, imply or hint that I had to resign ‘or else.’”

She ended the email: “Carla, it was truly devastating to get something so different than the conversation that we had nearly two years later.”

McMinimee also argues that the school district was supposed to provide her with legal representation should she be named in lawsuits against the district.

There were two such cases (which since have been resolved), and the school district gave McMinimee updates on them for the first few months after she resigned and before Trueblood was hired, according to the suit.

But when McMinimee phoned Trueblood for an update on the cases, Trueblood told her that, “based on the advice of counsel,” she wouldn’t be giving McMinimee such updates and that McMinimee wouldn’t be provided legal representation for either case.

That phone call, the lawsuit says, is the only time the two have interacted.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell