A former Olympia employee has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit that accuses the city of reverse racism.
The lawsuit was filed Jan. 12 by Eric Lakewold, who had worked as a garbage collector. Lakewold was fired in July after a confrontation with a resident about six weeks earlier.
According to the city’s investigation, Lakewold used a profane racial slur in a dispute with an African-American man over extra materials that had been stacked next to the resident’s waste cart.
Lakewold, who is white, has denied using any profanity toward the customer, and documents show there were no witnesses to the confrontation.
The lawsuit alleges that Lakewold was terminated “because he is a Caucasian,” and claims that the city fired him by using “reverse racism” to avoid risking a “racism lawsuit” by the African-American resident.
The city also “failed to conduct an unbiased or fair investigation into the situation,” according to the lawsuit, which says Lakewold complied with city policy and followed instructions from his supervisors.
Lakewold is seeking unspecified damages for lost wages, retirement plan contributions, emotional distress and attorney fees, according to the lawsuit. A trial date is expected to be scheduled at a court hearing May 15.
Lakewold’s attorney, Stephen Bean, said the lawsuit was a last resort and said the termination has been a traumatic experience for his client.
“He was given the short end of the stick,” said Bean, who doesn’t expect a trial this year. “I think (the city) thought he would just go away.”
According to documents, other factors contributing to the termination include a lack of judgment in handling the situation, as well as failing to follow directions from a supervisor. The city maintains the position that Lakewold’s termination was justified, said Joe Olson, director of human resources.
“It’s very early on in the process and there’s been no discussion about a settlement,” Olson told The Olympian about the lawsuit.
Lakewold was employed by Olympia for about 22 years. The garbage collector job was a second chance for Lakewold, a former parks maintenance employee who had previously been accused of harassing a gay co-worker as well as misusing city time and equipment. In 2013, Lakewold had voluntarily transferred to the city’s public works department in lieu of formal discipline.