Jennifer Soper — who last spring won a $350,000 settlement from Lewis County after making a claim of retaliation by Superior Court and sexual harassment by former Judge Nelson Hunt — learned to think of the unwanted attention as an “occupational hazard” necessary to keep her job, said her attorney, Stephanie Stocker of Olympia.
“Everyone knew,” said Soper, who was Lewis County’s Drug Court Manager until she resigned in 2016. “Everyone knew I would lose my job if I did anything about it.”
Hunt has denied that he ever sexually harassed Soper.
“If the process had let me defend myself, it would find that almost all of the allegations against me were either untrue or initiated by her,” Hunt said.
Hunt contends that the Washington Risk Pool, which insures the county and paid the $350,000 settlement, agreed to settle for financial reasons, not because the allegations against him were true.
But Stocker and Soper said they don’t believe Soper’s experience was an isolated issue. They claim gender-based disrespect or mistreatment is a major problem in Lewis County, and cited complaints brought against other male elected officials by female subordinates as examples.
“It was a toxic work environment,” Soper said.
Hunt said he doesn’t believe that’s an accurate description of the atmosphere in Superior Court.
“No, there isn’t a toxic environment there against women in my estimation,” Hunt said.
Court documents show Soper, former Superior Court Clerk Janet Gordon and Court Commissioner Tracy Mitchell have all reported poor treatment by Superior Court judges.
“As a woman, I witnessed and personally experienced the hostile work environment and sexual harassment at (Lewis County Superior Court),” Mitchell wrote in a declaration in Soper’s case.
The women all reported in court filings that it was common practice for judges, particularly Hunt and former Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey, to behave inappropriately.
Soper’s formal complaints accused Hunt of nine years of sexual harassment, from telling her intimate details of sexual encounters, to making her listen to sexually suggestive songs or written material, to suggesting she buy a wig from a female friend of his because he thought her hair was thinning.
Gordon reported being verbally berated by Brosey. Mitchell supported many of their reports, saying she either witnessed them or that Soper told her about incidents immediately after they happened.
Hunt and Brosey both retired at the end of their terms in January 2017.
Soper told The Chronicle she didn’t intend to file a tort claim or seek a settlement when she first hired Stocker, and instead just wanted to work out her concerns about Drug Court and Family Recovery Court.
She believed the county retaliated against her when she and others voiced concern that Child Protective Services was placing children with abusive parents as part of Lewis County’s Family Recovery Court. She was removed from her duties in that court, which was eventually halted and restarted last year.
She also alleges that the county failed to take her seriously when she raised concerns about the mental health of Drug Court Compliance Officer Kevin Dickey after the death of his daughter, and complained of him allegedly stalking her.
According to her complaint, she was not satisfied that a police investigation that came to a different conclusion was thorough or impartial.
After attempting to work out her issues with Superior Court, Soper resigned, saying she felt “constructively discharged.”
She didn’t bring forward the allegations of sexual harassment until after resigning, both in a tort claim filed in late 2016 and in an unfiled draft lawsuit the following year.
“I never thought I’d be the kind of woman who would ever complain about this,” she said.
In separate conversations with The Chronicle, both Hunt and Soper talked about their close friendship and partnership to make the county’s drug court the success it is today.
Apart from the fear of losing her job, Soper said that friendship was one of the reasons she didn’t report the alleged harassment while still employed by Lewis County. She said she respected Hunt as a person and a judge, loved the work she did, and didn’t want to harm Lewis County Drug Court.
“We had an amazing program. We saved people’s lives,” she said. “My job was worth it to me and the program was worth it to me.”
Still, Soper said they did not have a “peer relationship” and she never called Hunt by his first name, addressing him as Judge Hunt or “Your Honor.”
Hunt told The Chronicle that he and Soper were “best friends and colleagues,” and said many of the conversations Soper listed as evidence of harassment did happen, but he denied they were sexual harassment. He said she embellished or added the more “salacious” details.
“It makes it look like I’m some kind of sexual monster,” he said. “This is the betrayal of a lifetime.”
He said he would have stopped talking with Soper the way he did if she told him she was uncomfortable.
“It would have been highly embarrassing, but it would have stopped,” he said. “… She’s not a victim. She would have slapped me if … she would have hated my conduct … She was a willing participant in every conversation I ever had with her.”
That includes conversations on topics of a sexual nature, he said.
Hunt said his life and reputation have been damaged by the allegations against him and The Chronicle’s coverage of them, which he said people believe to be true regardless of what he says. He said he has lost job opportunities and can’t go to Chehalis without people talking to him about the claims.
Soper said the experience was devastating for her. She had to move into her father’s garage and use food stamps after leaving her job, and she said she has been unable to find similar employment elsewhere. She’s now is using her settlement to go back to college.
“I lost my reputation. I lost my home. I lost my job. I lost my friends,” said Soper, who had worked for Lewis County for 16 years. “They absolutely, 100 percent destroyed me.”
Gordon filed a lawsuit in 2017 claiming workplace harassment by Brosey. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
Among other complaints, Gordon accuses Brosey of referring to her and other female staffers in a “derogatory and disparaging fashion,” referring to women as “stupid,” “witch” or “b–.” She also reports being retaliated against by Superior Court Administrator Susie Parker.
“I am very aware of the emotional abuse by Judge Brosey, as I too have been a victim of his uncontrollable rage many times,” Mitchell wrote in her declaration in Soper’s case.
Gordon also claimed Brosey commented disparagingly about her age and often called her “that d– counter gal.”
A 2015 investigation into Gordon’s claims found no harassment from Brosey. “Although Judge Brosey has been abrupt, has engaged in angry behaviors and was not polite in many interactions with Gordon, the conduct was not unlawful discrimination,” the report said.
Brosey told The Chronicle he didn’t know anything about the tort claim or the lawsuit, and said the investigation determined he hadn’t discriminated against Gordon.
“That’s all I can tell you,” he said Friday.
The investigation states that judges believed calling Gordon a “d– counter gal” was a “running joke,” not meant to be offensive.
Gordon began getting very negative performance evaluations after making her complaints.
In a deposition of Mitchell included in Gordon’s tort claim, which The Chronicle obtained through a public records request, Mitchell says she too felt mistreated by Brosey.
“He was more than a jerk. No. I’m serious. He was more than a jerk,” she said in the deposition.
Court documents show reports of sexually-charged conversations around the judges’ lunch table. Soper said men in positions of authority in Superior Court vilified women who complained about their treatment and said women were most often called “girls” regardless of their age.
Soper and Gordon report being reminded they were “at-will” employees who could be fired at any time.
Mitchell also addressed the atmosphere in Superior Court in a declaration filed with Soper’s case and also reports that Brosey “regularly chided Jennifer (Soper for) graduating from The Evergreen State College,” and would ask her if she frequented a nude beach.
She reports that Soper told her about many of the incidents of alleged sexual harassment. “Jennifer has disclosed 95 percent of the sexual harassment remarks and discussions that Judge Hunt had with her to me, usually the same day it occurred as we were carpooling from work,” Mitchell wrote in her declaration.
Hunt said Mitchell and Soper were good friends, making Mitchell a bad witness.
In addition to telling coworkers, Soper told counselors about the incidents for years before she filed the complaint, Stocker said.
“The alternative of this being true is she spent nine years laying a trap for him,” Stocker said.
Hunt filed a lawsuit last month to stop Lewis County from releasing Soper’s tort claim and draft complaint to The Chronicle without redacting three portions, which he said included personal medical information. A Cowlitz County judge ordered Lewis County to release the documents with redactions last month. The Chronicle has since dropped its request for the redacted information.
Soper and Stocker said part of the $350,000 settlement included an agreement that both parties would not publicly discuss the allegations, even though the draft complaint given to the county and the tort claim were technically matters of public record.
They decided to talk after The Chronicle obtained those public records and after Hunt spoke to the newspaper on the record.
“My hope is that my speaking the truth and finding the strength to come forward will lead to positive change in Lewis County’s long standing pattern of abuse of power and gender discrimination,” Soper said in a prepared statement. “I hope my misery can bring about change in Superior Court and Lewis County. I hope Lewis County learns to value and protect its employees from elected officials that abuse their power.”
Lewis County also settled a claim of a hostile work environment in 2017 with Karri Muir, former clerk to the Board of County Commissioners, who accused former commissioner Bill Schulte of creating a hostile work environment.
It was the second hostile work environment claim against Schulte by a female employee. In 2010, the county settled with former employee Sheila Unger for $65,000. An investigation into Muir’s complaint revealed commissioner Edna Fund hired an attorney after feeling threatened by Schulte.
An ongoing lawsuit by a former Lewis County dispatcher accuses the county of retaliating against her for taking time off as allowed under the state Domestic Violence Leave Act, and of releasing her personal records to a man she had a protection order against.