The State Bar of Washington -- the organization that oversees and regulates all lawyers in the state -- received a scathing report, criticizing how it mishandled the investigation of an employee’s sexual harassment claim. Find out what happened, and what employees can do when board members take advantage of their position.
The Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) has a public mission to “serve the public and the members of the Bar, to ensure the integrity of the legal profession, and to champion justice.” The WSBA is a mandatory bar association, overseeing more than 40,000 attorneys and legal professionals across the state. But when in 2018, a staff member came forward alleging sexual harassment against a member of the Board of Governors, a recently released report says that the Bar’s response was anything but just.
Kara Ralph only been employed by the WSBA for a month. She had come on as the association’s events and sponsorship specialist, and was helping to put on a bar event and retreat at a hotel in Walla Walla, Washington in July 2016. After dinner one evening, Ms. Ralph was sitting alone at the hotel bar when newly elected board member Dan’L W. Bridges sat down with her and struck up a conversation. Ms. Ralph reports that early in the conversation, Mr. Bridges told her that while he was married, he didn’t believe in being monogamous.
Ms. Ralph said when she eventually left the bar, Mr. Bridges followed. He got into the elevator with her and rode past his floor saying he wanted to go to Ms. Ralph’s room. When the elevator reached her floor, Ms. Ralph stepped out first. She remembered telling Bridges that if he got out of the elevator “we’re going to have a problem.”
Ms. Ralph’s story came forward two years later, in 2018, when she told then-board member Athan Papailiou what had happened at a legal conference. Papailious in turn reported the incident to WSBA leadership. The board hired Jillian Barron, an employment lawyer, to investigate the incident. Barron found Ms. Ralph’s story credible, reporting that Mr. Bridge’s account of the incident “evolved” over her two meetings with him. However, she also reported that there had been no other reports of sexual harassment since that time. Ms. Barron did not say whether Mr. Bridges had violated any laws or WSBA policy, or recommend any disciplinary actions.
It was what the WSBA did with that report that raised eyebrows within the legal community. The board went into a private-session meeting to discuss the report. Mr. Bridges was included in that meeting and allowed to defend himself both verbally and in writing, including many misstatements of Ms. Barron’s findings. Immediately after the private session, the board moved to public session where they elected Mr. Bridges as the board treasurer for 2018-2019 in a contested election.
On January 18, 2019, 34 out of 150 staff members signed onto a letter calling on the Board to review its policies and create better systems for future sexual harassment reports. A few days later, a similar letter was set to the State Supreme Court.
As an employer, the Washington State Bar Association had the same obligation to take reasonable steps to investigate and respond to allegations of sexual harassment. Those steps likely include giving the accused and the accuser the same access to the decision-making body, and having clear criteria for when removal of a board member, staff member or volunteer was appropriate. The employees argued that making its decision in a closed-door meeting and letting Mr. Bridges participate, the WSBA created a hostile work environment and discouraged other staff members from coming forward with future incidents.
“From our perspective, a colleague disclosed an allegation of harassment by a board member and the board’s response to that disclosure resulted in a process that lacked proper oversight, transparency, and consideration of our colleague’s safety and well-being,” the letter said.
Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst of the Washington Supreme Court responded by appointing an independent investigator, Beth Van Moppes, to review the allegations that the Bar had created a hostile work environment. Ms. Van Moppes interviewed board members, staff, and others, and reviewed other information about the incident. In the resulting report, she criticized the board for not taking action against Mr. Bridges even after Ms. Ralph’s complaints were found credible.
“To a reasonable person outside the board, it appeared that the [board] had voted to promote an individual they knew had committed inappropriate conduct and was deemed less than credible.”
She also found Bridge’s participation in the meeting “egregious”, finding it more likely than not “that the working environment for the WSBA employees was hostile, intimidating, and insulting, as a result of the board’s failures.”
One issue addressed in Van Moppes’s report was whether the board was responsible for the investigation, or just the Executive Director. Boards of directors can play different roles in companies and organizations. Some have more control over workplace operations while others are simply advisory. Because board members are not employees of the company, when they sexually harass employees this lack of formal employment complicates an already difficult sexual harassment claim.
During Ms. Van Moppes’s investigation, several board members raised this as a defense. Van Moppes rejected their efforts to narrow the scope of her investigation. The EEOC Guidance on Employer Liability for Harassment says that a hostile work environment can be created by non-employee conduct. That, together with the frequent communication between board members and staff at WSBA, showed that the Board of Governors’ actions could and likely did create a hostile work environment for its employees, including Ms. Ralph.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment attorneys have dealt with harassment by boad members before. We know how to fight claims that employers cannot hold board members responsible for their actions, and when to file a claim with the EEOC or state human rights offices to protect the employees of organizations like state bar associations. Contact us to schedule a consultation at our office in New York City, or over the phone.