Judge denies county’s motion to dismiss suit

Rules commissioners didn’t have right to deny pay

“We have tried to resolve and settle this matter several times with minimal expense to the county. But, to date, the defendant Commissioners have refused to even discuss settlement. Perhaps this ruling will change their minds.”

Attorney Benjamin P. Compton, Vreeland Law PLLC

OKANOGAN — Superior Court Judge Veronica Galván issued a ruling last Thursday that said Okanogan County Commissioners Jim Detro, Sheilah Kennedy and Ray Campbell violated separation of powers when they interfered with the Okanogan County Superior Court’s obligation and prerogative to administer its own affairs and by withholding from Court Administrator Dennis Rabidou the pay increase contracted between himself and the Superior Court.

Galván, a visiting King County Superior Court Judge, denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Okanogan County Superior Court Judges Chris Culp and Henry Rawson, as well as Rabidou, against the county and the commissioners because they withheld money the two judges had contracted to pay Rabidou for his administrative services. The plaintiffs’ suit sought a ruling on who has the right to set the salary of the Court Administrator. Galvan agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled that the Superior Court has the authority to contract with and determine Rabidou’s salary.

“The County Commissioners do not have that right; they violated separation of powers by interfering with the Superior Court’s obligation and prerogative to administer its own affairs, and by withholding from Mr. Rabidou the reasonable pay increase contracted between him and the Superior Court,” writes Attorney Benjamin P. Compton, with Vreeland Law PLLC, which brought the case for the plaintiffs.

The County Commissioners hired the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and argued that their position was supported by relevant statutes, the state constitution, Supreme Court opinions and public policy. They claimed Rabidou was hired as the director of juvenile services alone.

“Additionally, the facts pleaded, hypothetically or otherwise, fall woefully short of establishing by clear, cogent and convincing evidence that without the additional raise for Mr. Rabidou, the Superior Court cannot fulfill its essential functions,” writes Robert M. McKenna, for the defendants.

The defendants cited a Lincoln County case that Galván refers to as Juvenile Director when making her ruling.

“While at first blush the holding in Juvenile Director appears to resolve this case there are significant factual differences which distinguish the matter before this court. In the Juvenile Director matter the Superior Court of Lincoln County sought to compel funding beyond that which was allocated by the legislative or executive branch. In order for a court to compel funding that has not been allocated this court must establish by clear, cogent and convincing evidence that there is a reasonable need for additional funds. In this instance, the Superior Court of Okanogan County acted within the scope of the funds budgeted and did not seek to compel additional funding. Courts possess the inherent authority to perform their judicial functions including expending allocated funds toward judicial administration,” writes Judge Galván in her ruling.

She continues, “The question then turns to whether the Superior Court of Okanogan has the authority to both contract with and set the salary to be paid to Mr. Rabidou. Mr. Rabidou was hired as a dual superior and juvenile court administrator and not merely as a director of juvenile services as the defense indicates.”

By way of background, the Washington State Attorney General appointed a Special Assistant in June of 2016 on behalf of the Okanogan Superior Court against Okanogan County and its individual Commissioners. The Special Assistant Attorney General Victoria L. Vreeland said the Superior Court Judges, along with Rabidou, seek judicial intervention to stop improper acts by the Commissioners which violate the Separation of Powers doctrine and interfere with the Court’s authority and constitutional responsibility.

“Efforts since August 2015, to get the Commissioners to act in accordance with law and resolve this matter with very little cost to the County have been futile,” said Vreeland of Vreeland Law PLLC, which also represents Mr. Rabidou along with attorney Compton.

The suit claims that the “Board has been hostile to and has improperly intruded into… the management of the Superior Court including its juvenile division [and]… has interfered… with even the daily operations of the administration of the Superior Court through petty, micro-management of budgeted funds contrary to the Superior Court’s {2176.02 – 00041114} internal management and administrative prerogatives.”

The complaint states that the actions of the Commissioners “have eroded the Superior Court’s ability to perform its judicial responsibilities, including creating safety and health risks in the Juvenile division, and lack of any courthouse security. Consequently, the personal safety of the judges, the Superior Court staff, and the public is threatened.”

Vreeland went on, “Rabidou, who performs two major positions for the Court saving thousands of taxpayer dollars, entered into an employment agreement with the Court in 2015. But contrary to the Washington Constitution, Separation of Powers and legal authority, the Commissioners improperly instructed the County Auditor not to provide the funds already allocated to the Court in its 2015 budget to pay the legally-contracted salary to Mr. Rabidou.”

According to Vreeland, Rabidou is seeking recovery of all damages allowed by law including wrongfully withheld wages, double damages, litigation expenses and costs and attorney’s fees. The Superior Court seeks court orders mandating that defendants pay the salary to Rabidou and declaring that defendants do not have the legal authority and shall not interfere with the Superior Court’s management and administration. The lawsuit was filed in Okanogan County Superior Court as required by statute.

“Judge Galván’s ruling decided the fundamental legal question in this lawsuit in favor of the Okanogan County Superior Court and Dennis Rabidou. The ruling is very significant. Its immediate effect is to allow this case to proceed like any other – with further discovery, including depositions of Commissioners Kennedy, Campbell, and DeTro, and, ultimately, trial,” said Benjamin P. Compton, with Vreeland Law.

He continued, “However, because Judge Galván did rule that the Superior Court—not the Board of County Commissioners—has the authority to determine Mr. Rabidou’s salary, there is little to no doubt that Judge Galvan would also grant a motion brought by the plaintiffs for the relief they are requesting, which includes back pay for Mr. Rabidou, enforcement of the contract he entered with the Superior Court, and payment of the costs and attorneys’ fees incurred by the plaintiffs in bringing this lawsuit to enforce their rights.”

Compton said the matter is unlikely to be completely resolved without a trial

One claim—a statutory claim under RCW 49.52.050 and.070 for willful withholding of wages—will require a jury to decide if the Commissioners genuinely believed they could legally withhold Mr. Rabidou’s salary, according to Compton.

“There is evidence showing they did not. But ultimately, that is a fact question to be resolved by a jury,” said Compton. “We have tried to resolve and settle this matter several times with minimal expense to the county. But, to date, the defendant Commissioners have refused to even discuss settlement. Perhaps this ruling will change their minds.”