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Former SRHD Health Officer Lutz challenges firing in new claim

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Former Spokane Regional Health District officer Dr. Bob Lutz may take his former employer to court over his 2020 dismissal.

Lutz submitted an administrative claim against SRHD that was made public Wednesday. The 40-page document alleges wrongful termination in violation of federal and state law, and defamation. The claim seeks $1.4 million in damages, plus additional money for attorneys’ fees, legal costs and other items. It also asks that Lutz be reinstated as health officer.

While the filing is a precursor to potential civil action, Lutz's attorney says a suit is not inevitable.

"The goal of this administrative action is to put SRHD on notice of Dr. Lutz’s injuries and the remedies sought, and give the district an opportunity to correct its wrongful conduct before resorting to the courts," attorney Robert Carlson said.

The district has sixty days to respond to the claim.

"At this point the dispute is in the hands of SRHD, and until we know how they will respond, we can’t determine whether a lawsuit will be necessary," Carlson said.

Lutz was let go in late October 2020 amid ongoing tension over his handling of local Covid-19 mitigation efforts. By Lutz’s account, SHRD Administrative Officer Amelia Clark fired him on October 29, though she did not have the power to do so. State law says Lutz could have been fired only by the health board and only with proper notice and a hearing.

At a press conference October 30, Clark would not say whether Lutz had been fired or had resigned. The SRHD board formalized Lutz’s termination at its November 5 meeting on the basis of Clark’s allegations, which included performance issues, insubordination and improper spending.

“This hearing was merely an after-the-fact procedural attempt to ratify Ms. Clark’s illegal October 29 termination, and deflect criticism directed at Ms. Clark and the Board,” Lutz’s filing said.

Clark later claimed Lutz was not fired October 29, but put on paid administrative leave until the November 5 board meeting. The health board has denied anything improper happened. An e-mail reported by The Inlander in July showed health board attorney Michelle Fossum said Clark had fired Lutz the afternoon of the 29th. According to Lutz’s administrative claim, an email to SRHD staff from Clark timestamped 7:47 a.m. October 30 said he had been let go the previous day.

A Washington State Board of Health investigation this past spring found Clark violated state law in firing Lutz, and found no evidence that he was put on leave until November 2. A follow-up hearing on the matter is scheduled for late January 2022.

The chain of events that led to Lutz’s termination began much earlier than the fateful October 29 meeting with Clark, the administrative claim said. Lutz’s public health decisions displeased local elected officials, SRHD board members and some staff, the claim read. The document also said Lutz would sometimes bear the frustration of local officials over decisions that originated in Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, particularly as the state began to re-open sectors of the consumer economy in the spring and summer of 2020.

“If local health officers, such as Dr. Lutz, are not free to exercise their sound medical and public health judgment in protecting and promoting public health without political and economic pressure, it would jeopardize the strong public policy underlying public health,” the administrative claim said.

The filing also implied Lutz’s firing was tied to “resentment within the entrenched SRHD bureaucracy” because of Lutz’s habit of communicating directly with staff instead of passing messages through managers. The document also says Lutz rubbed SRHD board members and staff the wrong way by penning editorials about gun violence and racial inequity, and by attending a Black Lives Matter rally last summer.

The defamation portion of the claim said SRHD made “unprivileged false and untruthful statements about [Lutz’s] ethics, professionalism, misappropriation of public funds and the performance of his job.”

On October 6, nearly a year after Lutz was fired, SRHD hired a permanent successor. Dr. Francisco Velazquez had no professional experience in leading a public health department, but had been serving as SRHD’s interim health officer and the face of local pandemic response since Lutz’s termination. It is unclear what would happen to Velazquez if Lutz prevails in his lawsuit and is reinstated.

Spokane Public Radio contacted SHRD for comments and response to Lutz’s administrative filing. No comment was available Wednesday evening.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.
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