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Letter portends new lawsuits likely against PUD

Notice sent to district from attorney for terminated managers


COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia River PUD Attorney Philip Griffin (left) sits in on a meeting with the PUD's Board of Directors Tuesday, Oct. 13. A notice was sent to the PUD last week advising all records related to four recently terminated employees must be preserved as evidence. Pictured with Griffin, left to right: Director Harry Price, Vice President Jake Carter and President Dave Baker.

An attorney representing four recently terminated employees of Columbia River People's Utility District has notified the PUD in a letter to preserve all evidence related to the employees.

Kyle Busse, an attorney with Portland labor law firm Busse & Hunt, is representing Sheila Duehring, Steve Hursh, Serena Brooks and Valarie Koss. The four ex-employees were managers at the PUD who were all terminated Sept. 22.

A notice to preserve evidence is often a precursor to a legal claim, but the PUD's attorney, Philip Griffin, confirmed Wednesday that no tort claim notices have been filed against the district yet.

Griffin declined to comment further.

The letter, dated Oct. 9, expressly instructs the district and its board members "not to destroy, conceal or alter any documents, electronic files, or other data in any way," related to Duehring, Hursh, Brooks and Koss.

Evidence, in this case, includes all devices, data, documents, email and personal devices used by staff and board members.

Busse's notice indicates his office expects to obtain documents as part of legal discovery.

No legal claims have been filed on behalf of the former employees, but Hursh confirmed Wednesday that a claim is likely to be filed.

Each of the four employees terminated last month received retention incentive payouts shortly after their exit as part of four separate retention agreements put in place in late 2014.

The agreements offered cash incentives to managers who stayed with the district until August, but they also required each affected employee to waive the right to sue the district for any reason.

The contracts became a source of contention among board members and district employees who questioned their fairness and necessity.

Last week's order to preserve evidence comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the PUD's former general manager, who filed suit for $25,000 claiming the district violated a non-disparagement clause. That lawsuit has yet to be resolved.

The embattled electric district has experienced a swell of legal complaints and costs from employees over the last year.

Prior to the current outstanding lawsuit and the recent prospect of more to come, the district executed a settlement and release agreement with its outgoing general manager in December 2014. So far this year, the PUD settled with two employees before hiring them back to work, in addition to initiating an independent investigation of an in-house employee complaint, which resulted in no legal action.

Last month, the district also received notice that it would be losing its liability insurance through Special Districts Insurance Services at the start of 2016. That means the PUD will have to find a new insurance plan to cover its liability and employment-related legal claims while outstanding legal claims are likely to exist.

Busse did not respond to a request for comment.