SPOKANE, Wash — Former Spokane Regional Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz's attorney announced Wednesday that he has served the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) with a wrongful termination claim, a prerequisite to a civil lawsuit.
Dr. Lutz led Spokane County's response to the COVID-19 pandemic in his role. After serving as health officer for more than three years and leading Spokane County through the coronavirus pandemic, Spokane Regional Health District Administrator (SRHD) Amelia Clark asked Lutz to resign and he was subsequently fired in a board meeting. There was significant public outcry with thousands of emails submitted to the board in support of Dr. Lutz.
A preliminary investigation conducted at the behest of the Washington State Board of Health (WSBOH) found evidence that Clark may have violated state law when she ousted Lutz. In a meeting following the release of the findings, the WSBOH voted unanimously to move forward with a formal hearing.
The claim outlines clashes between Lutz and Clark, and with other board members, over COVID-19 policies that impacted the economy and Lutz's stance on various social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
KREM 2 is taking a deeper look at the claim and allegations made by Dr. Lutz regarding his controversial 2020 firing from his health officer role.
Board members not required to have medical or public health experience
SRHD bylaws "did not require that anyone with medical or public health experience" be on the Board of Health, the claim says. When Dr. Lutz was appointed to the board, none of its members had medical or public health knowledge and this was the case throughout his eight years of service, according to the claim.
The claim also references an interim performance evaluation in January 2018 by Lutz's supervisor where he received high marks across the board and a November 2018 performance received where he was rated as "Achieves" in sixteen areas and "Exceptional" in two others. The rating system ranged from Exceptional, Achieves, Growth, and Unsatisfactory.
Dr. Lutz's views sometimes met with 'outright hostility,' claim says
The claim references what is described as Dr. Lutz's "take charge personality," adding that he "acts swiftly and promptly to 'get the job done'" when faced with a public health issue.
"This at times gave rise to resentment within the entrenched SRHD bureaucracy," this claim says.
According to the claim, Dr. Lutz would write editorials for publication in th4e Spokane area. His views were "often met with resistance and at times outright hostility by some SRHD Board members, SRHD staff and other elected officials in the region," the claim says.
The claim also documents instances where Dr. Lutz faced pushback from local leaders on his public health decisions, including the decisions to cancel a basketball championship, close playgrounds and issue a directive on masks.
"At times, while Dr. Lutz was the effective 'face' of the Spokane Region’s COVID-19 response, he would be publicly criticized by elected officials, business leaders and community members for actions he took in carrying out his duties as LHO [local health officer]. Undeterred, Dr, Lutz always looked to medical science and data to guide him in carrying out his prime directive – promote the public’s health."
Dr. Lutz not involved in finding Administrative Officer, claim says
In 2019, SRHD began the process of finding a new Administrative Officer "without the help or involvement of Dr. Lutz," the claim says. Dr. Lutz did not participate in the interview process, according to the claim.
In early 2020, Dr. Lutz met with Clark to review the health officer's professional goals for 2020. Clark did not provide any feedback at that initial meeting other than that she was supportive of Dr. Lutz’s planned goals and strategy, the claim says. Clark raised no performance issues or concerns, according to the claim.
Claim details pressure to move into Phase 2
The claim also documents "pressure" from local elected leaders, including some SRHD Board members, for a move into Phase 2 of reopening. The first set of criteria for counties to apply for a variance for Phase 2 was limited to communities with a population less than 75,000 and no COVID-19 cases over the previous two weeks. Spokane County did not meet this criteria.
"...Dr. Lutz was pressured by [Spokane County] Commissioner French, acting as the chair of the Board of County Commissioners, to immediately apply for a variance," the claim says. "When this topic was brought up at the EOC [Emergency Operations Center], Dr. Lutz explained there were no criteria for larger counties to obtain a Phase 2 variance. Spokane did not have a significant number of cases at the time, thus Commissioner French’s focus was on the economic impact of staying in Phase 1."
On May 19, 2020, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced expanded county variance criteria, to which French responded to by saying, "We want to be in Phase 2 before Memorial Day weekend."
"Completely bypassing the SRHD and Dr. Lutz, Commissioner French and his fellow county commissioners passed a resolution on May 19, 2020 and penned a letter to the governor requesting that Spokane County be moved immediately into Phase 2," the claim says.
According to the claim, Dr. Lutz was "told by Commissioner French and others that he needed to apply for a variance immediately."
"Commissioner French asked Dr. Lutz how long it would take to pull the materials together and was unhappy when told it would take a few days Dr. Lutz and the SRHD team worked through the weekend to pull all materials together with staff having to defer other responsibilities to comply with Commissioner French’s demand," the claim says. "Given it was coming from the 11 Chair of the Board of County Commissioners, and its role on the local Board of Health, this was perceived as an “order” that was not questioned by the AO, when made aware of the challenging timeframe."
Board was unhappy with Dr. Lutz's protest participation, claim says
On May 31, 2020, Dr. Lutz participated in a Black Lives Matter march for George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minnesota police officer. He wore a face covering and practiced physical distancing in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the claim says.
According to the claim, Clark told Dr. Lutz "the Board" was not happy with his participation.
Dr. Lutz receives pushback over Phase 3 stance, claim says
In early June 2020, SRHD Board members were receiving complaints from voters about Dr. Lutz and "his COVID-19 related actions," according to the claim.
"One voter asked Commissioner French why Dr. Lutz has more power than the Board of County Commissioners. In another complaint, Commissioner French was told Dr. Lutz was 'destroying business” and “must be gone now,'" the claim says.
Commissioner French then sent these emails to Clark without copying Dr. Lutz, according to the claim.
"On information and belief, Commissioner French (and others) wanted Dr. Lutz fired because, as LHO, his COVID-19 response actions were not in alignment with the economic and political views of certain SRHD Board members," the claim says.
There was concern at this time about the possibility of moving backward from Phase 2 into Phase 1. Dr. Lutz said he felt there was a "low risk" of moving back to Phase 1 but was skeptical about Spokane County moving into Phase 3 soon, according to the claim.
According to the claim, Dr. Lutz was then summoned to a meeting on June 15, 2020, with Ms. Clark, SRHD Board Chair Ben Wick and SRHD Vice Chair Mary Kuney.
"Dr. Lutz thought the purpose was to discuss open issues, but the meeting turned out to be a type of ad-hoc performance review," the claim says. "Dr. Lutz had received no performance evaluation since Ms. Clark started, nor had there been any formal complaints or criticisms concerning his job performance during that time. Because Dr. Lutz had just publicly stated he felt the data did not warrant moving to Phase 3, the timing of this 'performance evaluation' was suspect."
Clark came to the meeting prepared with notes citing specific dates and issues, the claim says. She accused Dr. Lutz of "lacking integrity, having poor communication skills and a passive-aggressive approach," according to the claim.
Dr. Lutz then asked rhetorically if SRHD was the best organization for him and Clark said it was his decision. Dr. Lutz said he would give it consideration and get back to them in a week.
The next day, the Spokane County Board of Commissioners passed a unanimous resolution approving the drafting and signing of a letter to Dr. Lutz urging him to "begin the process of allowing Spokane County to move to Phase 3," the claim says.
Dr. Lutz declined to initiate a request to move into Phase 3 "because the relevant metrics were not met," according to the claim. During this time, Clark prepared a formal Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and sent a draft of the same to Wick and Kuney for review and comment. Wick then advised Clark they decided not to proceed with a PIP for Dr. Lutz, according to the claim.
Dr. Lutz requested a draft of the PIP under Washington's Public Records Act, which SRHD rejected in part citing "the attorney work-product doctrine," the claim says.
Dr. Lutz suggests professional facilitator, claim says
On June 24, 2020, Lutz had a follow-up meeting with Clark, Wick and Kuney where he said he wanted to continue working with SRHD. No performance plan was discussed during the meeting, the claim says.
According to the claim, Dr. Lutz also suggested the use of a professional facilitator to improve communication with Clark. But Kuney said the two "should be able to work things out" as "two adult professionals," citing the cost of a facilitator as "not a good use of public funds," the claim says. The only action item agreed to was restarting weekly one-on-one meetings between Clark and Lutz.
Unbeknownst to Dr. Lutz, Clark also prepared and circulated several draft documents — including a PIP — to the SRHD Human Resources department, Kuney and Wick, the claim says. According to the claim, these documents were never given to Dr. Lutz nor placed in his file.
Board members didn't comment on protest outside Dr. Lutz's home, claim says
On July 17, 2020, anti-mask protesters gathered outside Dr. Lutz's home, prompting a large police presence.
"...No elected official or SRHD board member made any comment, raised any concern or issued any condemnation with respect to the anti-mask protest at Dr. Lutz’s home," the claim says.
Clark against considers Performance Improvement Plan, claim says
On Aug. 3, 2020, Dr. Lutz strongly recommended that Spokane-area schools begin their 2020-2021 academic year remotely. On Aug. 7, Clark again considered issuing Dr. Lutz a PIP, the same one she considered giving him in June, the claim says. Clark elected not to provide this document to Dr. Lutz, according to the claim.
On Aug. 9, 2020, Dr. Lutz published an editorial entitled, “COVID has exposed structural racism in public health system.”
Wick and Kuney questioned why Dr. Lutz had written about racism and believed a more important topic was his decision around school reopening, the claim says.
"Dr. Lutz told Ms. Clark of his concern that these communications by SRHD Board members were an attempt to put political pressure on him. Dr. Lutz told Ms. Clark that he could and would also write a piece on education and thought co-authoring it with Maria Howard, PhD, who facilitated SRHD’s ethics committee, would be a great opportunity of explaining the decision-making and inherent ethical tension behind it. Ms. Clark agreed to allow Dr. Lutz to write this piece," the claim says.
Clark later wrote to Dr. Lutz that the board was "unhappy" with his editorials and that SRHD needed to get out of politics, the claim says. Clark then told Dr. Lutz she did not want him writing editorials anymore.
Board meets with Clark concerning Dr. Lutz's job
On Oct. 14, 2020, just two weeks before he was fired, Dr. Lutz made statements to media about a possible need to move back a phase in reopening due to recent COVID-19 data, the claim says
On that same day, Kuney relayed a complaint she had received from a constituent about Dr. Lutz possibly sending Spokane back a phase, asking whether the Board of County Commissioners could do anything and asked if someone would stand up to this guy, according to the claim. Kuney sent this complaint to Ms. Clark.
Two weeks after stating he may need to move Spokane back to Phase 2, the SRHD Board met with Ms. Clark and legal counsel concerning his job. SRHD claims the meeting was covered by attorney-client privilege, so little is known, the claim says.
Clark's personnel file shows no record of performance evaluations
Dr. Lutz’ personnel file contained no performance evaluations from Ms. Clark, and the only one that is in his file was the favorable evaluation provided in late 2018.
"Other than Ms. Clark’s “personal file” she maintained on Dr. Lutz, including select meeting notes and copies of select emails between Dr. Lutz and others, nothing in Dr. Lutz’ personnel file suggests he was on the verge of being terminated for performance issues," the claim says.
It is unknown when and why Ms. Clark began tracking Dr. Lutz’ emails and keeping notes on him.
Unclear who authorized separation agreement
Some SRHD Board members left the Oct. 14 meeting with the understanding that Dr. Lutz would be presented with a PIP. Ms. Clark, however, left the meeting believing she had the authority to either provide a PIP to Dr. Lutz or terminate him.
"Ms. Clark prepared a PIP and warning letter, which she planned on reviewing with Dr. Lutz later that day. However, she also prepared 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 claim says.
Day of Lutz's termination
On Oct. 28, 2020, Ms. Clark contacted Dr. Lutz to inform him she was unable to meet the morning of Oct. 29, 2020, for their regular one-on-one meeting. She requested they meet after the board meeting scheduled for that afternoon. Dr. Lutz was scheduled to teach an introduction to public health class to nursing students at Gonzaga University immediately after the meeting and let Ms. Clark know they could forego their meeting, which was not uncommon. She insisted they meet that afternoon. Upon his arrival at her office later that day, Ben Wick was also present.
"At no point did Ms. Clark discuss a PIP, but instead read a list of alleged performance deficiencies, including events that had occurred months earlier. These included an email directed to elected officials concerning an article on child access to guns programs around suicide prevention," the claim says.
At this meeting there was no discussion of a SRHD Board vote, no discussion of a warning letter and no discussion of any PIP.
At no point was Dr. Lutz told that he was being placed on administrative leave, as Ms. Clark later claimed. Clark told Dr. Lutz that he was fired “effective immediately” and demanded his keys, laptop, credentials and all other SRHD materials. SRHD’s attorney, Michelle Folsom, confirmed in email that same day that Dr. Lutz had been fired.
The next day, Oct. 30, 2020, at 7:47 am, Ms. Clark sent an e-mail to SRHD staff, stating: “Yesterday, October 29 was Bob Lutz’ last day at the Health District,” directly refuting a claim later made by Ms. Clark that Dr. Lutz was on “administrative leave.”
Were the hearing procedures followed?
On Nov. 2, 2020, Dr. Lutz was advised that the SRHD Board was set to meet sometime later that week and vote on his termination, even though Clark had already fired him and stated that Dr. Lutz was no longer SRHD’s LHO as of Oct. 29, 2020.
"Dr. Lutz responded by pointing out proper procedures had to be followed for any hearing, including seven days’ notice under Washington’s Administrative Procedures Act 23 (WAPA) and other WAPA procedural requirements. The SRHD Board replied that the WAPA did not apply, and it would proceed with the hearing on Nov. 5, 2020. Dr. Lutz received fewer than 48-hours’ notice," the claims say.
Lutz and Clark were permitted to speak, and neither could ask questions of each other or any SRHD Board member. No witnesses were allowed, there was no testimony provided under oath and no cross examination was allowed. Clark and Dr. Lutz were also required to submit materials immediately ahead of the noon deadline on Nov. 5, 2020, which was just hours before the scheduled hearing.
Support for Lutz
The support for Dr. Lutz in the community was immense. For example, 17 Spokane County school superintendents submitted a statement of appreciation for Dr. Lutz to the SRHD Board.
Dr. Lutz claims at least $1.4 million in economic damages for what he alleges is wrongful termination by SRHD, along with non-economic damages for "defamation, emotional distress, mental anguish, and injury to professional reputation." Dr. Lutz is also seeking reasonable attorneys' fees, expert fees, costs, prejudgment interest and an award for adverse tax consequences.