Dispute over pay raise poses constitutional issues
By Marcy Stamper
An Okanogan County Superior Court administrator — who sued the county and its commissioners in a salary dispute — and lawyers for the county have been exchanging motions in court in preparation for oral arguments next month.
Dennis Rabidou, Okanogan County’s superior court administrator and juvenile department administrator, sued the county in June, contending that the commissioners blocked the court from paying his agreed-upon salary, which included a raise to compensate Rabidou for taking on a second position as court administrator.
The county asserts that the Superior Court judges have no authority to set Rabidou’s salary nor to give him a raise, according to their reply filed at the end of July. While the court can hire and fire staff, the county commissioners retain full authority over the budget, they said.
Lawyers for Okanogan County initially asked the court for a stay in discovery — the process of gathering evidence — saying that requests submitted by Rabidou’s attorney for public records were so extensive that they interfered with the normal functioning of the commissioners’ office. They also asserted that the documents were not relevant to the Constitutional issues in the case.
In a declaration filed with the court, the commissioners’ clerk of the board said she and two other staff members had spent at least 14 hours assembling documents for just one of 11 requests. She and a coworker also spent two eight-hour days researching and compiling information in response to other requests. The extensive requests delayed their regular job functions, she said.
Because it took so long to appoint a visiting judge to hear the case, time ran out on the motion and discovery had to proceed, according to Rob McKenna, who is representing Okanogan County. McKenna, now an attorney with the Seattle-based law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, served two terms as Washington’s attorney general, from 2005 to 2013.
The case is being heard by a visiting judge because of the involvement of Superior Court judges and staff. She denied the county’s motion to stay discovery in September.
Both the plaintiffs and defendants see the matter as a Constitutional one, but are at odds as to how to interpret the Constitution and related statutes.
The Washington Constitution gives Superior Court judges “ample inherent power” to manage their staff and to set salary, according to Benjamin Compton, an attorney for Rabidou. State law allows county commissioners to set salaries for certain court employees, but not for the court or juvenile administrator, he said.
“This is an employment case … It raises substantial questions about budgetary law and the doctrines of separation of powers … It raises fact questions about the nature of the budgets Defendant Commissioners have adopted and how those budgets operate in practice,” Rabidou’s attorneys wrote in a court filing.
But attorneys for the county say, “This case is not about someone losing a job. Nor is it about someone not getting paid. This case is about a local court giving a court employee a pay raise without the authority to do so under the Washington State Constitution, contrary to the principle of separation of powers.”
In fact, the county’s attorneys argue that the real issue exists between Rabidou and his superiors at the court. After asking the court to rule in the county’s favor, they said, “then Mr. Rabidou perhaps can bring claims against judicial the branch of government [sic], i.e., the branch that promised him a raise that it had no power to give.”
Rabidou’s contract with the judges provides for annual increases that would increase his salary by $1,000 per month at the end of four years.
Visiting judges, special attorneys
Rabidou is being represented by Victoria Vreeland and co-counsel Compton with Bellevue-based Vreeland Law. Vreeland Law is serving as a special assistant to the state’s attorney general because of the case’s connection with Okanogan County Superior Court.
Okanogan County’s defense is being handled by an outside law firm because the Washington Counties Risk Pool determined in June that its contract with the county for liability coverage does not include personnel matters such as contractual disputes or wages due.
Among the documents obtained by Rabidou’s attorney are the initial contract with Orrick for legal representation and an August invoice for $87,670. The contract provides for representation by three attorneys at a “blended hourly rate of $560 and capped at $60,000.” Research, travel and word processing are billed separately.
The $60,000 cap applied to filing the initial response and motion to dismiss, said McKenna. The scope of work was subsequently expanded to cover the discovery process. There is currently no cap on their fee, since it is impossible to predict how much time will be involved if the case goes into litigation, he said.
Oral arguments on the county’s motion to dismiss the case are scheduled for Nov. 15 before visiting judge Veronica Galván from King County Superior Court.