Six additional tort claims have been filed against Wapato City Administrator Juan Orozco and other city staff, with claimants demanding damages that add up to more than $4 million.
A civil tort claim documents an alleged wrong that causes an individual to suffer loss or harm from the actions of a person or group in the claim. Under Washington law, the individual has to cite how the other person acted with extreme and outrageous behavior or intentionally or recklessly inflicted emotional distress.
Former Wapato law enforcement officers filed five of the six new claims, alleging Orozco and city staff retaliated and created a hostile work environment that ultimately led many of the officers to resign when the officers documented grievances. A former female city employee also filed a claim, alleging ongoing sexual harassment from Orozco that ultimately led her to quit.
Each individual claims damages of $700,000, for a total of $4.2 million.
Orozco did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A civil tort claim is the first step in filing a civil lawsuit. The city will have a 60-day window in which to respond to the claims’ allegations.
David Therrien-Power, one of the attorneys with the Sunnyside-based firm Newhouse & Power, who filed on behalf of the individuals, said the city has not yet responded, though some of the claims will hit that 60-day window within a month or so.
“If we do not hear back, our clients plan to proceed with their claims as allowed under law,” Therrien-Power said.
There are now 11 civil tort claims and seven lawsuits filed against the city in the past two years.
Orozco was elected mayor in 2017, and resigned in September 2018 to become city administrator.
The claims filed by five former Wapato law enforcement officers allege that Orozco tried to use the police department to intimidate citizens who opposed him, that he retaliated against officers who did not unquestioningly obey him, and that his directives ordered them to act in a way they found morally and ethically reprehensible.
The claims allege that Orozco and the Wapato police department have “clearly established policies of bullying and threats to unlawfully further nefarious objectives,” and that resistance resulted in a hostile work environment, administrative leave or being fired.
Keilen Harmon, who was working as an administrative sergeant at the Wapato city jail at the time of his termination, said he received notice for a pre-termination hearing two days after he filed a grievance about a hostile work environment through the police union. When Orozco moved to close the jail in May 2018 — due to what he called “unsanitary” and “filthy” conditions, according to a city letter attached to the claim — Harmon was laid off, though several lower-level employees were not, the claim asserts.
Harmon alleges the decision was not only retaliatory but also driven by racial discrimination, as Orozco had repeatedly expressed an interest in having more Hispanic officers in the department, and Harmon is African American.
Fernando Lopez, another former officer, said he was ordered by Orozco to arrest and handcuff a man who had allegedly harassed him. Lopez said he spoke with the individual, who agreed to drive to the police department of his own volition and was released when officers determined no probable cause for an arrest existed.
Less than a week later, Lopez said his supervisor held a meeting with the police department and told officers that they should “just make Juan Orozco happy.” Lopez, who was two years from retirement, chose to resign as he felt he would be used to enforce unethical and possibly unlawful actions.
Former officer Andreas Eismann, who wears a full beard as a member of the Orthodox Christian faith to show an outward commitment to God, claimed that Orozco demanded that he shave his beard or be terminated for being “insubordinate.” The request came after Eismann contacted the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office with concerns that Orozco was making “unlawful threats” to a City Council member and attempting to intimidate the council member, whom the claim notes was a known political opponent to Orozco, into resigning.
Eismann notes he was asked by his supervisor to deliver the draft of a resignation letter to the council member while wearing his full tactical vest, uniform and firearm in an attempt to “intimidate” the council member. When the council member refused to sign the letter, the supervisor allegedly told Eismann he should have treated the council member “like a suspect in a criminal investigation to get him to do what was needed to be done.”
Eismann was placed on administrative leave in May 2018 and cleared of wrongdoing in July, but ultimately resigned when given the ultimatum of shaving his beard or being terminated.
Jacob Murphy, also a former officer, said he experienced retaliation after questioning several of Orozco’s actions. Murphy disagreed when Orozco told him that he wanted to replace a well-liked, older, white school resource officer with a younger, “Chicano” officer whom Murphy noted did not speak Spanish.
Murphy did not handcuff former mayor Tony Guzman, as allegedly requested by Orozco, when Guzman became part of an investigation that ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing.
Murphy also refused to vote to extend a contract for Orozco’s choice of public safety director, after which he allegedly was labeled as a “pot-stirrer” and chose to resign rather than continue to be used “in unethical and possibly unlawful investigative efforts by supervisors,” according to the claim.
Charles Lawther — the older, white school resource officer — said he was removed from his position after he questioned Orozco about missing retirement payments, a clothing allowance and overtime hours. Lawther says he then was asked to work mostly graveyard and swing shifts and “unreasonable” hours, including all three police shifts in one week and a 12-hour shift in which he was the only patrolman.
Lawther also said that Orozco asked him to provide the physical description and location of the property of a City Council member who openly challenged the administration.
Lawther said he was placed on administrative leave without reason, and though he was later cleared of wrongdoing, he continued to experience retaliation.
The claims note that many of the former officers who resigned currently are on public assistance, have lost their medical insurance and no longer are receiving unemployment benefits.
The remaining new tort claim was filed by Elissa Buck, a female employee who alleged Orozco had repeatedly taken her out to lunch and dinner, asked her to go on overnight trips with him, and monitored her whereabouts in a way that became controlling.
Buck alleges that Orozco turned against her after she spoke with the police union about the resignations of several of the officers who filed the claims and for her repeated refusal “to accompany Orozco on out-of-town trips.”
Intimidation, harassmentTwo former city employees alleged intimidation and harassment by Orozco in two of the former five civil tort claims filed. Beth Touschner, the attorney who represents the two women, said that she has been in touch with the city’s attorney but the 60-day window for the city to respond has passed.
Touschner said her firm is planning to follow up with civil lawsuits in the next few weeks.
The remaining three civil tort claims allege defamation by Orozco with regard to comments he made to the media about $130,000 of settlements to the claimants for violations of the state’s public records law.
Tim Hall, the attorney who represents the three individuals, said the city has about two weeks left in the 60-day window to respond.
“We have not had any response from the city thus far, but the clients do intend to move forward with their respective suits,” Hall said.