Former Bureau of Reclamation Employee Receives $1.7M Age Discrimination Judgment


A former federal employee who handled real estate transactions for the Bureau of Reclamation in Ephrata was granted a nearly $1.7 million judgment last week by a judge presiding over her age discrimination complaint.

U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian approved on April 12 the judgment in favor of Kelly O'Kell after an 11-day bench trial held in Spokane in February. O'Kell convinced Bastian that she was passed up for a promotion that she was qualified for in 2016 in favor of a younger applicant with no experience working for the federal government, that her supervisors retaliated against her for filing an Equal Employment Opportunity claim against the bureau and that an investigation into her discrimination claims was delayed for nearly a year.

"She was glad and humbled to have the opportunity to hold the government to account in a federal court," said Matt Crotty, one of the attorneys based in Spokane representing O'Kell. "It's something that few people would be able to do."

The Bureau of Reclamation is reviewing Bastian's judgment, said Michael Coffey, a regional public affairs officer for the bureau based in Boise.

"We are disappointed the court has not agreed with the agency's position," Coffey said.

O'Kell was hired by the office, which handles water resource management for the U.S. Department of the Interior, in July 2014, according to court testimony. She applied for another job in the bureau at the request of her supervisor in May 2016, when she was 56 years old. The job was given to a female candidate with no federal government experience, according to testimony, who was younger than 40, though the government argued she had worked for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

O'Kell testified that a female colleague indicated the other candidate was hired because she was "young and perky," but the other woman testified at trial that she didn't remember saying that. The government argued that O'Kell had made inappropriate comments to her co-worker after not getting the job.

O'Kell filed an informal complaint alleging age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after which her teleworking privileges were rescinded and she received a letter of reprimand following an unrelated complaint from the colleague who had allegedly made the "young and perky" comment, according to testimony. O'Kell then filed a formal complaint in August 2016, but an investigation wasn't opened until a year later, according to testimony.

In the meantime, the bureau hired a private investigator to examine claims made by other employees who said they'd been harassed by O'Kell. The investigation lasted 36 days and ended with O'Kell's firing in July 2018, with the government arguing that O'Kell complained about job assignments and accused co-workers of extramarital affairs and conspiring to get her fired.

Bastian found that the age discrimination investigation prompted by O'Kell had not been timely, as required by law. He also found that the investigation into O'Kell's claims was not impartial, and that the federal government had actively attempted to prove O'Kell's alleged harassment rather than investigate her claims of discrimination.

"The Court recognizes that every employer has the right to manage and discipline its employees for inappropriate behavior," Bastian wrote in his decision. "However, in the present case, (the bureau's) exercise of this right came at the expense of all its other responsibilities — including its duty to timely investigate and address allegations of discrimination/retaliation and to counsel employees on how to improve their performance before resorting to discipline."

Coffey said the bureau had already been "proactively addressing" the concerns raised by Bastian in his judgment, but declined to give specifics on what those actions were in an interview.

"We take very seriously our role in ensuring our workplace is free of discrimination and bias," she said.

The $1.7 million judgment includes lost wages for the past four years of employment, pension benefits and student loan forgiveness benefits. It does not include attorney's fees, Crotty said, which will be determined at a later date.