Wapato City Hall

Wapato City Hall.

A former deputy clerk treasurer has filed a wrongful termination tort claim notice with the city of Wapato seeking $750,000.

Erica Rocha, a former city deputy clerk treasurer, filed the claim on Nov. 4. The notice is the first step in a civil lawsuit.

Rocha, the daughter of former city administrator Juan Orozco, started with the city as a temporary employee in the clerk treasurer’s office in January 2018 at an hourly rate of $28.85. She was promoted in February 2019 to serve as a deputy clerk treasurer.

Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa terminated Rocha on Aug. 20 for failing to report to work and for abandoning her position, according to an email from Alvarez-Roa that was part of the tort claim filing.

In the claim notice, Rocha and attorney William Pickett claim that Rocha experienced a hostile work environment that was never properly investigated and that she was wrongfully terminated for not reporting to her job while she was on approved leave.

Rocha’s claim asks for $750,000 in damages, including emotional distress. The Yakima Herald-Republic obtained a copy of the civil tort claim filing through a public records request.

The claim said Rocha reported alleged misconduct by former city clerk treasurer Kim Grimm to the mayor. Rocha said Grimm allegedly was “violating Washington’s Public Records Act, misusing government resources, and violating public health laws by smoking cigarettes within 10 feet of City Hall.” The claim alleges that Rocha then was targeted by the City Council and Grimm, who allegedly spread “false rumors” about her.

The claim also alleges that Grimm assaulted Rocha by placing a handgun on her desk, according to the tort claim.

Grimm filed a separate civil tort claim notice this month alleging that she was wrongfully terminated by Alvarez-Roa. Her new attorney, Kevan Montoya did not comment on the allegations about Grimm in Rocha’s claim prior to publication of this article.

Put on leave

Rocha’s claim alleges that Alvarez-Roa approved medical and paid administrative leave for her to recuperate from the alleged hostile work environment, and that Rocha was to report directly to the mayor and to not come onto city property. The claim alleges Rocha obeyed but then was fired when she did not come in to work.

The claim includes letters with the official city letterhead and emails sent from Alvarez-Roa’s personal and work email accounts, in which Alvarez-Roa wrote that she fired Rocha “under duress” from “threats” and “pressure” from the city attorney Julie Norton. The claim includes an Aug. 20 email in which Alvarez-Roa tells Rocha she doesn’t agree with the termination.

Alvarez-Roa wrote: “Per Julie Norton, city attorney, I am terminating your employment, for failing to report to work and abandoning your position. Even though I directed you to report to me directly, which you did. I do not agree with Ms. Norton’s analysis of your job performance, because you are an exemplary employee and you have never missed a day without reporting to me.”

Norton, in an emailed response to the newspaper, said she has no authority to hire or fire city employees.

“The Mayor elected to terminate her (Rocha’s) employment after she failed to report to work following approved leave,” Norton said.

Norton noted that the mayor requested a termination letter, then said she would put Rocha on unpaid leave based on potential whistleblower complaints.

“I let her know that based on the treatment afforded to other recently terminated employees and the fact that she was attempting to place an alleged whistleblower on leave, she could be violating statutes which would, in turn, subject her to potential liability,” Norton said via email.

Alvarez-Roa did not respond prior to publication of this article.

In addition to the two tort claim filings, the city is facing eight ongoing lawsuits, seven of which have been filed by former or current employees and one filed by open government activist Arthur West.