Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Former administrator files $3 million claim

Sharon Hammer seeks reinstatement in Sun Valley


By GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writer

Just when things appeared to be settling down in Sun Valley, another legal bomb has been lobbed at City Hall.

Former City Administrator Sharon Hammer wants her job back. She's also threatening the city with a $3 million lawsuit alleging assault, defamation and wrongful termination.

Hammer filed a notice of tort claim with the city on June 27, the same day that the city's insurer settled a claim by city Treasurer Michelle Frostenson, one of two whistle-blowers who contended they were retaliated against by Hammer and former Mayor Wayne Willich for alleging misconduct by Hammer and other city employees. That alleged misconduct included misrepresentation of paid time off and personal use of city vehicles and credit cards.

Under Idaho law, a potential plaintiff against a city must first file a notice of tort claim to give the city an opportunity to settle.

Hammer's claim contends that City Councilman Nils Ribi "engaged in harassing and abusive conduct toward Ms. Hammer; that Hammer was "subjected to retaliatory actions by the City, including suspension, termination, and internal investigations, for speaking out against the unauthorized and violative actions" of Ribi and other elected officials and staff; and that Ribi, City Attorney Adam King, former Treasurer Michelle Frostenson and former City Clerk Kelly Ek compiled innocuous information "to support trumped-up allegations of undefined misconduct for the purpose of fabricating grounds to terminate Ms. Hammer's employment and destroy her good name."

On Friday, June 29, Hammer refiled a lawsuit in 5th District Court in Hailey claiming that her firing in January was illegal. The suit, alleging a violation of Idaho's Protection of Public Employees Act, asks for an order reinstating her to her previous position.

Hammer originally filed a similar suit in November, but withdrew it in January, saying she wanted to give the city a chance to settle. Her current filing lists as defendants not only the city, but also 10 elected officials and staff members.

The 34-page complaint cites numerous alleged instances of angry and verbally abusive treatment of Hammer by Ribi. It contends that he continued to order her to do things even after being told by then-Mayor Wayne Willich that Ribi should discuss issues with him, not with city employees.

In an interview, former City Clerk Kelly Ek—along with Frostenson, the second whistle-blower—disputed the harassment allegation against Ribi.

"He was doing his job as a council member, questioning the financials, questioning the minutes, asking basic questions," Ek said. "[Hammer's] response would be anger to any question about why things weren't being done."

Hammer's complaint contends that Ribi's alleged actions violated the city's "Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual," which prohibits "harassment in any form."

The Protection of Public Employees Act forbids a municipal employer from taking adverse action against an employee who reports government waste or violations of "a law, rule or regulation." Joy Vega, Hammer's Boise-based attorney, contended in an interview that violations of the city's policy manual are covered by the act.

As remedies, the act provides for reinstatement of an employee to his or her original position, compensation for lost wages and benefits "and other remuneration," payment of attorney fees and payment of a $500 civil fine.

Hammer's complaint alleges that "[i]n retaliation for Ms. Hammer's complaints against him, Defendant Ribi sought confidential documents from other city employees, including at least Defendants Ek and Frostenson, in order to create the appearance of misconduct by Ms. Hammer."

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" ...[I]n or about November 2011, Defendant Ribi and Defendant King ... distributed the ill-gotten and allegedly accusatory confidential employment materials regarding Ms. Hammer to Defendants [City Councilman Bob] Youngman and [then-Councilman Dewayne] Briscoe, and the men utilized said materials during communications between and among each other to craft a plan for Ms. Hammer's termination."

In an interview, Ribi denied ever having made such a request from Ek or Frostenson. Ek called the allegation "totally fabricated."

Hammer's complaint states that following an executive session of the City Council on Nov. 11, Willich told her "that she had been accused of theft, fraud and embezzlement." However, it contends that Willich then told her "that he, personally, did not believe the allegations, and that he felt it was a 'witch hunt.'" The complaint also states that Hammer was never provided with any written allegation or evidence of her alleged misconduct.

Keith Roark, Ribi's attorney in a defamation lawsuit filed by him against Hammer's former attorney, Jim Donoval, contended in an interview that Hammer was not a "whistle-blower" whose actions are covered by the Protection of Public Employees Act. He called Hammer's use of the act "unprecedented."

"It will go nowhere," he predicted.

According to Hammer's complaint, she was working for the city under a contract when she was fired by Briscoe, who is now the mayor. Asked why Hammer has not sued for breach of contract, attorney Vega said, "Ms. Hammer is still evaluating other legal claims available to her."

Vega said Hammer "would love to go back to work for the city of Sun Valley."

"But for the conflict created by Nils Ribi, she truly enjoyed serving the city of Sun Valley," Vega said.

Greg Moore: gmoore@mtexpress.com

Judge knocks down Ribi's defamation suit

On Monday, June 25, 5th District Judge Jonathan Brody tossed out the defamation claims in a suit filed by Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi against former City Administrator Sharon Hammer's former attorney and her husband, Jim Donoval, over Donoval's written statements to city officials in November contending that Ribi suffered from mental instability. In granting a motion for partial summary judgment, Brody ruled that the statements were protected as pre-litigation communication.

"The public policy supporting the broad litigation privilege is to free attorneys to zealously advocate for their clients without fear of subsequent litigation. ... ," Brody wrote in his decision.

Brody acknowledged that the statements may not be true, but ruled that the litigation privilege provides absolute protection.

In an interview, Donoval said his only intent in writing the letters was to competently represent Hammer.

"I had the right to question Mr. Ribi's emotional well-being," he said. "We were concerned about Sharon's safety around Mr. Ribi."

Ribi's attorney, Keith Roark, said he did not disagree with Brody's legal reasoning, but added, "I think we're all amazed that attorneys get to do the kind of wild things that Mr. Donoval did and get away with it."

Roark said Ribi would continue to pursue claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution contained in the suit.




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