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Firefighter settles discrimination lawsuit for $250K

Damon Winters said he was wrongfully denied a full-time position with the department


By Kyle Mittan
The Bellingham Herald

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The city has agreed to a $250,000 settlement in a lawsuit by a volunteer firefighter accusing Lynden and its assistant fire chief of discrimination and creating a hostile work environment.

Damon Winters, a volunteer firefighter, filed the lawsuit against the city and Assistant Chief Robert Spinner in U.S. District Court in Seattle on April 5, 2016. Winters, who was born in Egypt, also holds citizenship in Canada. He became a U.S. citizen in March 2016, according to court documents.

ACCUSATIONS

Winters began volunteering for the department in August 2013, and first applied for a full-time job when two spots opened in April 2014. Both positions went to white firefighters, according to court records. Winters was given a part-time position in June 2014, which he had also applied for as a backup.

In August 2015, the city notified Winters he had been selected for a newly open full-time position. But the city rescinded the offer days later, saying his lack of U.S. citizenship at the time made him ineligible, court records say.

Winters was again denied a full-time position before the end of 2015, according to court records. The part-time position Winters had held since June 2014 was also eliminated in December 2015. The city and Spinner, according to court documents, said the position was temporary. Winters, in court records, argued the position wasn’t temporary.

He first notified the city of his discrimination claims on Dec. 3, 2015. In addition to claiming he was wrongfully denied a job, Winters’ complaint also called into question Spinner’s conduct.

The city and Spinner, according to court documents, denied most of Winters’ accusations, including:

  • That Spinner “has a history and pattern of ignoring, manipulating, bending and breaking” hiring policies to select firefighters he personally wants to hire;
  • That Spinner is “perceived by coworkers as a deeply racist man;”
  • That Spinner has made “highly inappropriate” comments about black people, Mexicans, women and members of the LGBT community;
  • That Spinner “routinely” belittled Winters, and called him a “terrorist;”
  • That Spinner often complained that Winters “stinks up” the station’s kitchen with “ethnic food,” even though Winters cooked the same or similar food as the other firefighters;
  • That Spinner said Winters’ “life would really be miserable around here” if he was given a full-time position.

Spinner, according to court documents, did admit to speaking with two other firefighters about Winters’ claims, and said he believed Winters was “looking for money.”

SETTLEMENT

Lynden City Council approved the settlement at Monday’s meeting.

The Cities Insurance Association of Washington, Lynden’s insurance pool, will cover the cost, said Mayor Scott Korthuis. He doesn’t expect its annual pool membership fee to go up, he added, considering how large the pool is. The association has more than 250 members.

The decision to settle, Korthuis said, came after considering the costs of litigating the case. The settlement, he added, is not a claim of innocence or an admission of guilt by Lynden or Spinner.

“I think everyone knows there comes a time during litigation when it’s financially more prudent to settle than to go to court,” he said Friday. “There are a lot of good things going on in Lynden so it’s good to push past this lawsuit so it isn’t a distraction anymore.”

Lynden Fire Chief Gary Baar is set to retire next month, Korthuis said. The council approved Spinner as the interim replacement, which “bodes well for him” to become the next permanent chief, Korthuis said.

When asked if Korthuis had any reservations about Spinner’s leadership in light of the accusations in the lawsuit, the mayor simply said “no.” Part of the settlement’s terms required he not disparage anyone involved, he added.

Spinner, when reached by phone Friday, also said he was glad to have the lawsuit behind him, adding he wasn’t permitted to comment further.

Winters, who still volunteers for the department, agreed to leave the position by the end of the month. The settlement’s terms also stipulate that Baar write Winters a letter of recommendation.

Vreeland Law, a Bellevue firm, represented Winters in the suit. Attorney Ben Compton declined to comment on the settlement.

Copyright 2017 The Bellingham Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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