Medina, city manager must pay $2M to fired police chief over racial bias
A jury finds Medina City Manager Donna Hanson fired then-Police Chief Jeffrey Chen largely because of racial discrimination, and ordered $2 million in damages.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A federal court jury sent a sharp rebuke to Medina and its city manager Tuesday, saying former Police Chief Jeffrey Chen was fired, in large part, because of racial discrimination.
And a big price tag comes with that decision.
The small lakefront city and City Manager Donna Hanson were ordered to pay $2 million to compensate him for back pay, future pay and emotional harm.
Hanson, who fired Chen two years ago, must personally pay $25,000 in punitive damages.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly will decide at a future hearing whether to order the city to reinstate Chen, who is Chinese American, in his old job.
“The message is that discrimination is not allowed; it will not be tolerated,” Chen’s attorney, Marianne Jones, said after the verdict.
Tears flowed freely as Chen hugged his legal team and community supporters, who included former City Council members Janie Lee and Shawn Whitney.
“Jeff won on every single count — every single count!” Lee exclaimed in a cellphone call after the judge, jury and city officials left the courtroom.
“I’m anxious to get back to work and regain my integrity and character that were stripped away from me,” Chen said.
He said he hopes to work again for “the great citizens of Medina and Hunts Point,” which contracts with Medina for police services.
The verdict followed an 11-day trial in which Chen claimed he was fired because of his race or national origin, while city attorneys portrayed him as a corrupt cop who had to go.
The eight-member jury deliberated for one day before finding that Medina and Hanson discriminated against Chen under three separate sections of federal and state law, and denied him due process.
Chen, hired by Medina as a police captain in 2001 and promoted to chief in 2004, became a cause célèbre among many residents of the affluent Lake Washington community when he resigned in December 2010 during a city investigation into unauthorized access of archived emails.
When Chen attempted to rescind his resignation, Hanson, the city manager, placed him on administrative leave, commissioned a broader investigation and in April 2011 fired him for multiple allegations of misconduct.
Chen testified he has been unable to find police work since then, because of “the lies that are out there that I was dishonest or did something wrong.”
His attorney, Jones, said in her closing argument Monday that Hanson fired Chen because of her “old-school racism” directed at the only nonwhite department head in the city.
“Donna Hanson is a racist and needs to stop,” Jones said.
Jones said Hanson’s racism was revealed when she told Chen, “I thought Chinese people were more patient than that,” and when she asked on another occasion if “you people” eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
Hanson testified she didn’t recall commenting on whether Chinese people are patient, and a police clerk who heard Hanson’s question about Thanksgiving turkey testified she thought it was directed at her rather than at Chen because she is vegan.
Chen said a police lieutenant repeatedly quoted a former chief as saying Chen was “a regular Charlie Chan” and also used another ethnic slur to describe Chen.
Attorneys for the city said Chen lost his job only after he lied during two investigations in order to cover up his own misconduct.
Defense attorney Suzanne Michael told the jury Chen was a corrupt officer who lied to his boss, spent city funds for his own use, bullied his subordinates, snooped in other officials’ emails, fixed traffic tickets for others and justified his decisions by writing memos addressed to himself in the names of subordinate officers who knew nothing about the memos.
Some of the memos voided traffic tickets, and one suggested buying three iPod Touch devices.
Sgt. John Kane testified that he was disgusted to learn that Chen had made it look like the iPod memo Chen wrote to himself had come from Kane. If Chen came back as police chief, Kane said, “He’ll have my resignation today.”
Asked about specific emails of other city officials that were viewed with a password he used, Chen said he may have read some and it was likely that he read a specific one.
When Ellen Lenhart, who conducted the second investigation, was asked by Chen’s lawyer why the probe was unusual, she answered, “It was unusual because I don’t think I ever interviewed a witness who I felt was lying as much as Mr. Chen.”
But former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, an expert witness for Chen, slammed Lenhart’s work as “a series of interviews and paper reviews and that’s all” — without adequate follow-up of leads.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org