Chen wins case, jury awards $2 million to former Medina chief

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Jeffrey Chen

By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly

A federal jury found on Tuesday, March 26 that Medina city manager Donna Hanson’s firing of former Police Chief Jeffrey Chen was racially motivated, awarding Chen $2 million in total damages. At the time of his release, Chen was the only non-white department head in Medina and the only Chinese American police chief in Washington State.

The jury, which was made up of four women and four men, found for $285,000 in back pay, $1.65 million tied to Chen’s inability to find work due to his tarnished image, and $100,000 in emotional damages. The jury also ruled that Hanson must pay Chen $25,000 for her role in the firings.

In addition to damages, Chen sued for his old job back. Federal Judge Thomas Zilly will decide that matter later in April. If Chen does elect to take his job back, he would have to forego much of the $2 million award. Chen’s legal costs were not on contingency and cost approximately $500,000. Chen said that if Zilly does decide that Chen may have his job back, it would be a family decision.

“I am personally elated at this decision,” said Chen in a phone interview with the NW Asian Weekly. “I’m sorry that it had to come to this. When I signed up for public service, I just wanted to serve the people, but I had to stick to my core values. Sometimes, you have to stand up for what’s right.”

The decision closes a case that has put much personal pressure on Chen. He was originally released from his position the day of his daughter’s birthday and the same week as Christmas. His youngest child, a twelve-year-old son, had difficulty processing why his dad was unemployed. Following his dismissal, he was unable to find another job in law enforcement.

“I’ve felt a tremendous amount of support,” he continued. “I appreciate that from the bottom of my heart.”

The case, which started on March 11 and lasted 11 days, dealt with the somewhat bizarre dismissal process, which took place from December 2010 to April 2011. Chen released a public resignation letter in December 2010 and quickly rescinded it less than two weeks later. He then released a seven-page letter to the Medina City Council stating that he quit because City Manager Hanson was forcing him out.

Chen was put on administrative leave following his rescinding, pending the results of an investigation led by private investigator and Bellevue attorney Ellen Lenhart. The investigation eventually found Chen guilty on six counts: dishonesty, abuse of his position as chief, unauthorized removal and/or destruction of public records, improper access of city records, improper access of the city’s e-mail archives, and loss of confidence by subordinate officers.

Community members took issue with the firing, saying that Chen had served Medina well, reducing crime in the city to nearly nonexistent levels. Medina citizens presented to the city council petitions calling for his reinstatement and for Hanson’s firing. Several community members, Chen’s children, and Medina city councilmembers were present during closing statements.

Chen charged that his dismissal was racially motivated. During case proceedings, he claimed that Hanson treated him differently because he was the only nonwhite department head in the city. He also claimed that she made racist remarks to him on several occasions.

“When Donna Hanson came to Medina, Chief Chen had two decades of a great law enforcement career,” said Marianne Jones, Chen’s attorney, during closing statements on Monday, March 25. “He had the admiration from his staff and the community. Donna Hanson destroyed this … Why all this for Chief Chen? Why four months of all of these investigations? She showed this with her racial slurs and inability to see any good in Chief Chen. Donna Hanson thought Chief Chen was in a different class, a lower class. Donna Hanson saw Chief Chen and all Chinese Americans as ‘you people’ … This case is about racism. Chief Chen is not a runt. He’s not a ‘regular Charlie Chan’ and he should not have been subjected to being called a ‘smiling Chinaman.’ ”

The City of Medina countered that Chen’s dismissal was due to the chief’s dishonesty, as surfaced in the Lenhart report.

“The question for you is why was Jeff Chen terminated?” asked Suzanna Michael, who represented both the city and Hanson. “He was terminated primarily for lying. He lied to his boss, he lied to the community, he lied to the city council.”

However, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who was an expert witness for Chen, said that the Lenhart report was without merit.

Though the case may be appealed by the City of Medina, Jones said she thinks an appeal would be without merit. (end)

Charles Lam can be contacted at charles@nwasianweekly.com.

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