BELLINGHAM - Western Washington University will have to pay out more than $300,000 to a former employee, after a jury found that his firing breached policies laid out in the school's exempt staff handbook.
Greg Peterson brought the lawsuit against the university in 2007 in Whatcom County Superior Court, after he was fired from his position as custodial services/warehouse manager.
Peterson had worked for the university for 28 years, and in that time he received several promotions and performance evaluations ranging from satisfactory to exceptional, according to the complaint filed by his attorney, Deborra Garrett.
The university's Equal Opportunity Office conducted an internal investigation into Peterson after getting complaints from two of his employees that he had used racially discriminatory language in a meeting. The employees alleged that he used favoritism toward some employees and was hostile to others.
The investigation found that a preponderance of evidence substantiated the allegations against Peterson, according to WWU's motion for summary judgment. He was allowed to submit a written response to the investigation and had a hearing with the school's vice president of Student Affairs and University Services, Eileen Coughlin, who made the decision to fire him. He appealed to the Exempt Professional Staff Organization, and it denied his appeal.
In December 2012, a jury found in favor of Peterson's claim that WWU's Exempt Professional Staff Handbook "contained promises of specific treatment in specific situations" - promises Peterson relied on and the university breached - and that his firing was not based on just cause, according to court documents. The jury awarded him $193,314.
"I think that there were some real questions about the accuracy of the charges against my client and the internal investigation that was done by the university," Garrett said. "I think the jury also felt that employment policies should be taken seriously."
WWU agreed Thursday, Jan. 31, to pay more than $302,000 to Peterson, including his verdict award and money for attorney costs, said state Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Battuello, who represented WWU in the case.
"The decision to forgo an appeal was made because we felt it was in the best interest of the university to have finality," Battuello said.
A university spokesman referred to their attorney for comments about the case. Battuello said she didn't think that the verdict would change the university's firing policies.
"The university felt that this termination decision was appropriate and supported and that Mr. Peterson was afforded all of his due process rights," Battuello said.