Whistleblower in Fife Police Department files retaliation lawsuit against city

A whistleblower in the Fife Police Department has sued the city over retaliation that he says resulted from his opposition to department misconduct.

The lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court states that Russell Hicks was “subjected to discrimination, retaliation and (a) hostile work environment” for opposing unlawful activities that occurred within the department three years ago.

Hicks’ claims he was wrongfully passed up for a promotion on two occasions and that City Manager Dave Zabell initiated an “unwarranted and retaliatory investigation” against him. He also alleges Zabell refused to sign off on a teaching position for Hicks unless he settled “legal issues” with the city.

The city responded in court documents that the alleged “retaliatory” investigation was spurred by a written misconduct complaint about Hicks, and that the investigation was closed after no findings against Hicks were sustained.

The city also says the officer started his teaching assignment on time “without missing a single day,” according to court documents.

Hicks is still a city employee even though he holds a three-year, full-time teaching position in Olympia, his attorney James Beck told The News Tribune.

Hicks’ allegations of retaliation stem from formal complaints he filed with the Fife Police Department and with the Washington Human Rights Commission.

Over a period of several years, the police department faced several investigations that eventually led to the resignations of a detective and a lieutenant in 2011. One officer broke the law and another engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate employee.

Police Chief Brad Blackburn and two members of his command staff also faced allegations of inappropriate conduct and discrimination, but an outside investigator determined in 2011 that the conduct either did not happen or could not be proven.

According to court documents in Hicks’ lawsuit:

Zabell’s “unwarranted and retaliatory” investigation of Hicks in August 2011 revealed no misconduct.

That same year, Hicks applied for a promotion to lieutenant and tested into the top position on Fife’s Certified Eligibility Register, one component of the city’s hiring process for officers.

“For discriminatory and retaliatory reasons, a lower-scoring candidate was selected instead of Hicks,” the documents state.

In July 2012, another lieutenant job was vacant but the city didn’t promote anyone from the register, according to the complaint. The lawsuit alleges that city officials allowed the register to expire “so that Hicks would no longer be at the top of the list.”

Later that year, Hicks was recruited to teach at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, an assignment that required approval from Zabell.

The lawsuit states “Zabell refused to sign approval” for Hicks’ instructor position until he “settled his ‘legal issues’ with the city,” citing letters exchanged between the two men.

Beck told The News Tribune last week that those legal issues included pending public records and retaliation cases.

“They were hanging it up until the first day he was supposed to report,” he said.

The city disputes Hicks’ claims.

In the first of the two missed promotions, the city acknowledges that a sergeant ranked second on the eligibility list was promoted to lieutenant in lieu of Hicks, but that the action complied with city policy.

According to court documents, candidates “who place onto the top spot of an eligibility list are not guaranteed the next available promotion. Instead, the top three candidates on an eligibility list are considered for promotions or vacant positions.”

As for the expired eligibility list, a new one was adopted because “several new qualified candidates were available to participate in the lieutenant testing process, in addition to the fact the City intended ... to adopt a new and improved testing system,” according to the city’s response to the complaint.

Once the new testing system was adopted, Hicks “declined to participate,” court documents state.

Beck said it doesn’t make sense that the city initially passed up the most qualified person for a promotion, especially since Hicks had already been serving in an interim lieutenant capacity.

The lawsuit was filed in June, during what has become a summer of upheaval at Fife City Hall and in the Police Department. Blackburn, the police chief, resigned last week with several questions unanswered and a separation agreement with the city worth well over $100,000.

Zabell has accepted a new job as Pasco city manager. His last day in Fife is Aug. 12.