In legal claim, former Spokane health officer claims COVID shutdown politics led to his firing

click to enlarge Dr. Bob Lutz, former Spokane Regional Health District health officer.
Dr. Bob Lutz, former Spokane Regional Health District health officer.

A law firm representing Dr. Bob Lutz has filed an administrative claim for wrongful termination with Spokane Regional Health District, noting the step is required before filing a lawsuit.

"The claim for wrongful termination has numerous bases, including violations of statutory protections under Washington law, violations of internal SRHD bylaws, lack of just cause, and violations of public policy and State and Federal Constitutional protections," an Oct. 27 news release from attorney Robert J. Carlson states.

Lutz is also claiming defamation "owing to the impact on Dr. Lutz of the insensitive, unprofessional, and untrue statements made and implied by SRHD’s leadership and certain of its Board members."


He is requesting more than $1.4 million in damages, in addition to attorney's fees and reinstatement to his position as health officer.

"I took a stand for Public Health. It cost me my job," Lutz says in the news release. "As a public health physician, it has been my responsibility to protect the public’s health and safety. I have done so ethically and with integrity. The motives of others will not deter my advocacy. I will continue to stand for the public’s health."

SRHD spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins did not respond to a call seeking comment about the claim.

WHAT'S IN THE CLAIM


The administrative claim outlines Lutz's concerns over how his firing last October came about. It offers a narrative of issues that arose during his time serving as health officer and the moments that led to an Oct. 29, 2020 meeting with Clark, and a Nov. 5, 2020 health board vote to fire him.

Buckle up for a long summary of what's in the 40-page claim.

(DON'T TALK ABOUT) GUN SAFETY
The claim notes that Lutz faced political pressure and disagreements with the local health board over the years he worked there. He started as health officer in May 2017.

In early 2019, the former marine was told he should not express his views on gun safety and gun violence in public health op-eds anymore without prior approval from the health board. The issue would arise again in 2020 when he emailed information on suicide prevention to regional lawmakers.

PANDEMIC SHUTDOWNS ARE EXPENSIVE
As the health officer during a pandemic, Lutz had to make decisions that were unpopular politically or because of their economic impact.


One example cited was when Lutz canceled the Washington State Middle School Basketball Championships in early March 2020. The claim says the move was "not viewed favorably by local officials" including the spokeswoman for Visit Spokane and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who said they were concerned about the "devastating economic impact" canceling events could have.

"The message these officials were sending to Dr. Lutz was that regional economic impacts should be a primary factor in his public health decisions," the claim states.

Shortly after that, Gov. Jay Inslee declared mass shutdowns of all events and most elements of daily indoor life, from restaurants to businesses starting in mid-March.


Lutz then consistently heard from businesses and politicians who argued that Eastern Washington, which hadn't seen many COVID-19 cases, should be allowed to open up and "not be punished for what was happening elsewhere."

When Inslee's phased reopening plan was released in May 2020, local politicians called on Inslee to allow Spokane to open up faster.

The claim describes how Lutz felt pressured by Spokane County Commissioner Al French, a long-time member of the health board, to request a variance for the county to move into Phase 2 of the reopening plan.

The application for that variance required detailed county data that took days to pull together, and according to the claim, Lutz and other health district staff were required at French's "order" to work through the weekend to put that together.

On May 23, 2020 the variance was approved.
STRUCTURAL RACISM
On May 25, 2020, after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Lutz authored an op-ed about structural racism and public health, and provided it to the health district's administrative officer Amelia Clark.

According to the claim, "SRHD informed Dr. Lutz it would not approve this for publication with no explanation as to why. No further information was provided at that time."

On May 31, 2020, Lutz participated in the local Black Lives Matter protest over Floyd's killing, a massive demonstration that French would later cite as a concern before voting to fire Lutz. The administrative claim states that Lutz was wearing a face covering and social distancing during the protest.

Lutz was told afterward that members of the health board were not happy he attended the march. The claim states that Clark documented a meeting where she told Lutz about concerns health "board members had about him attending the" protest. Lutz was told to separate his personal views from his work.

'AD-HOC PERFORMANCE REVIEW'
Lutz was called to a June 15, 2020 meeting with Clark, then-health board chair Ben Wick (the Spokane Valley mayor) and County Commissioner Mary Kuney.

Lutz didn't know the meeting would turn into something of a performance review, with Clark reading concerns from detailed notes.

Because no formal complaints over his job performance had been filed during Clark's tenure at the district, the claim states that Lutz found the timing "suspect" since it was shortly after he'd publicly questioned if the county was ready for a move to Phase 3 of reopening.

During the meeting, the claim states, Clark "accused Dr. Lutz of lacking integrity, having poor communication skills and a passive-aggressive approach," while neither Wick nor Kuney weighed in.

Lutz, feeling attacked, questioned if the district was the right place for him to work at, the claim states. He said he'd get back to the three within a week about his thoughts.

The next day, the three county commissioners wrote Lutz a letter asking him to start the process of moving Spokane County to Phase 3.

On June 18, after reviewing the science and current COVID-19 case counts, Lutz declined to do so.

IMPROVEMENT PLAN, OR NOT
The claim notes that during that time, Clark prepared a performance improvement plan for Lutz and sent it to Wick and Kuney for notes, but after Wick spoke with the board's attorney, they did not give the plan to Lutz.

According to the claim, a common concern with providing a performance improvement plan to an employee who you want to fire is that there's "the 'risk' that the employee complies" with the plan and prevents their termination.

Lutz requested the draft plan under the Public Records Act but the district declined to produce it, citing "the attorney work-product doctrine," which indicates there were plans to fire him as early as June 2020, according to the claim.

Lutz met with Kuney, Wick and Clark again on June 24, 2020 and said he wanted to stay at the district.

He wasn't given the performance plan during that or a follow-up meeting. He suggested a facilitator could help him and Clark communicate better but Wick and Kuney said as adults, they shouldn't need to use public funds to communicate.
EXPLAINING SCHOOL REOPENING
On Aug. 3, 2020, Lutz strongly recommended schools start the 2020 school year remotely.

On Aug. 7, Clark considered giving Lutz the performance plan from June but again declined to do so, the claim states.

On Aug. 9, following up on a July resolution passed by the health board addressing health inequity and racism, Lutz wrote an op-ed (that Clark signed off on) about dismantling structural racism to better enable access to health for all.

Wick and Kuney questioned why Lutz wrote that piece and not something about school reopenings. So Clark approved another Lutz op-ed on education that ran Aug. 23.

Clark later emailed him saying she was confused, thinking the op-ed was solely going to be attributed to Lutz's coauthor. She also told him that SRHD should get out of politics and he shouldn't write op-eds anymore.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END
The claim notes that "On October 14, 2020, just two weeks before he was fired, Dr. Lutz made statements to the press about the possible need to move back a phase due to recent COVID-19 data."

The same day, Kuney passed along a citizen complaint to Clark that questioned who would stand up to Lutz and prevent him from moving the county back.

On Oct. 28, 2020, Clark let Lutz know she couldn't make it to their usual morning meeting scheduled for the next day but said they should meet after the scheduled health board meeting that afternoon. Lutz said they could skip that month's meeting because he would be teaching a class after that, but according to the claim, Clark insisted they meet without saying why.

On Oct. 29, 2020, without Lutz' knowledge, the health board went into executive session to discuss his job performance.

The administrative claim points out that Lutz had no performance evaluations from Clark in his personnel file, and the only evaluation in there, from 2018, was favorable of his performance.  Clark, however, also apparently kept a "personal file" of emails, meeting notes and concerns about Lutz, the claim states.

It's not known exactly what was talked about during the closed-door meeting, the claim states, but it appears there was confusion about what would happen next. Some board members left thinking Clark would give Lutz a performance plan.

"Ms. Clark, however, left the meeting believing she had the authority to either provide a [performance improvement plan] to Dr. Lutz or terminate him," the claim states.

For the meeting with Lutz, Clark prepared a performance improvement plan and a warning letter, as well as a separation agreement.

"To date, neither any Board member nor Ms. Clark has explained who authorized this Separation Agreement, including the offer of $53,408.85 to Dr. Lutz in exchange for a full release of claims and confidentiality," the administrative claim states.

THE FINAL MEETING
Clark and Lutz met with Wick present on Oct. 29, 2020.

According to the claim, "at no point was Dr. Lutz told that he was being placed on administrative leave, as Ms. Clark later claimed. Rather, Ms. Clark told Dr. Lutz that he was fired 'effective immediately' and demanded his keys, laptop, credentials and all other SRHD materials."

He was given the separation agreement and told he had until 4 pm the next day to sign it.

"Recognizing that Ms. Clark lacked the legal authority to fire Dr. Lutz – something that could be done only by the SRHD Board with proper notice and hearing – Ms. Clark, through counsel, attempted to revise history and characterize Dr. Lutz’ status as 'administrative leave,'" the claim states.

Lutz got two days' notice of a special health board meeting scheduled for Nov. 5, 2020, when his employment status would be voted on.

"This hearing was merely an after-the-fact procedural attempt to ratify Ms. Clark’s illegal October 29 termination, " the claim states, "and deflect criticism directed at Ms. Clark and the Board."

Still want to read more? Find the full claim below.

Winter Market at the Pavilion @ Pavilion at Riverfront

Wednesdays, 3-7 p.m. Continues through Dec. 22
  • or

About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...