SPOKANE, Wash. — A former Washington State Department of Health employee has filed a lawsuit against the department and Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah. This comes after she claims she was fired in violation of her First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit filed by former DOH employee Erika Henry centers around an e-mail she sent as a private citizen in light of the controversial firing of Dr. Bob Lutz by Spokane Public Health Administrator Amelia Clark.
Henry also worked for the Spokane Regional Health District from 2010-2014. She claims she was fired for sending that email with concerns about Clark.
According to the lawsuit, Henry said she was encouraged by then-Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiseman to make comments as private citizens as they see fit.
Wiseman was the health secretary when Lutz was controversially fired and when Henry made her comments.
The lawsuit says Henry, a Spokane County resident, sent an email to the Spokane Regional Health Board in the days after the Lutz firing.
Henry claims she sent that email during her own personal time from her personal email account and used a private computer.
She also said she used her name but didn't reference her employment with the DOH in the email.
In that email, Henry voiced concerns about Clark's leadership, calling it "inadequate" and "incompetent" among other things. She said she sent the email because she was a citizen concerned about the consequences of Lutz's firing.
"So, this was really about my community, my family, yes my experience and profession, but not relating to the fact that I work at DOH," Henry said.
The lawsuit says Henry consulted with the legislative advisors and policy analysts at the department of health, who said she could make such statements in a personal capacity as a citizen.
In Feb. 2021, Henry was sent with Shah to visit the SRHD. She claims in the lawsuit that during the visit, Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman angrily spoke about Henry's email and told her she had no business to say the things she did.
Henry also said that Shah's chief of staff told her she had every right to express herself as a private citizen.
The lawsuit also claims that County Commissioner Mary Kuney gave Shah a copy of Henry's email during the visit.
That then set off a chain reaction that led to Henry being fired for violating state rules regarding so-called activities incompatible with public duties. The lawsuit says the department claimed she shouldn't have used her name in the email, and that she needed to tell newly appointed health secretary Shah about her comments to the SRHD.
Henry also claims the DOH investigation found her comments disrespectful and inappropriate, and that her firing violates her first amendment rights since she was acting as a private citizen.
She also said other department of health officials publicly weighed in on Lutz's firing at the time.
Mayor Kevin Freeman could not be reached for comment. Spokane County Spokesperson Jared Webley said Commissioner Kuney would be unable to comment as it involves an ongoing lawsuit. The DOH also said it doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Freeman and Kuney were not named as defendants in the lawsuit.