Judge rules Washington State Bar Association subject to open meetings law

By Lewis Kamb

The Seattle Times

A King County judge ruled Thursday that the organization that licenses and regulates lawyers in Washington is a public agency subject to state transparency laws, and so it must turn over any private correspondence that explains why its governing board recently fired the agency’s longtime executive director.

But even while the court ruling is bringing more clarity to a legal dispute over the conduct of the Washington State Bar Association’s governing board, the turmoil among its board members is escalating.

Earlier Thursday, one board member notified the body’s president that he intends to seek the removal of two others from the board for allegedly engaging in secret self-dealing, and the removal of a third board member for remarks some lawyers view as racist.

The latest alleged misconduct in question emerged in private email exchanges introduced as part of the lawsuit challenging the board’s recent dismissal of Executive Director Paula Littlewood.

In his 17-page ruling, Superior Court Judge Roger Rogoff stopped short of reinstating Littlewood to her former position, as the two lawyers now suing the bar over the matter had sought.

But the judge’s ruling found lawyers Lincoln Beauregard and Steve Fogg likely would prevail in their lawsuit, which contends the governing board broke the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) when deciding in secret to fire Littlewood. In turn, Rogoff partly granted an injunction ordering the bar to reveal “any correspondence” among governing board members about the firing.

The injunction also requires the board to comply with the state’s open meetings law going forward by conducting its business in public, including “any efforts to hire a new (executive director).”

Fogg and Beauregard said the ruling likely will result in Littlewood’s eventual reinstatement.

“These board members are now going to have to produce all the behind-the-scenes emails and openly talk about just what it was that convinced them that she needed to be fired,” Fogg said. “We’re confident that once this sees the light of day, they had no basis to terminate her and they’ll have to reinstate her. It’s a big victory for transparency and the lawyers who are part of the WSBA. It means they can’t hide this stuff anymore.”

A spokeswoman for the bar said Friday the agency was “still reading the ruling closely to determine its implications and to decide our next steps.”

In his ruling, Rogoff noted that as the case raises novel questions about the bar and its business, he expects his decision will be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

As executive director, Littlewood most recently made $272,184 a year. Her firing, agreed upon by the board’s majority faction during a closed-door session in January and carried out later with little public explanation, is among a series of recent controversies within the agency. Bar employees and various member-lawyers have raised allegations of mismanagement against the board’s ruling majority, resulting in lawsuits, workplace investigations and the resignation of a key fundraiser.

The turmoil only intensified Thursday, as Athan Papailiou, a member of the board’s minority faction, notified board president William Pickett that he intends to call for the removal of three board members among the ruling faction. Papailiou contends private emails that came to light as part of Beauregard’s lawsuit suggest the members were “trading secret votes” and “evidences conduct unbecoming of service on this Board,” his letter to Pickett states.

The emails in question include messages exchanged between board members P.J. Grabicki and Dan’L Bridges, whom a bar employee has accused of sexual harassment. The emails purportedly show Bridges secretly tried to negotiate a favorable settlement to his own retaliation claims that he made against the bar after being accused.

In another email referenced by Papailiou, board member Paul Swegle likens the lawsuit brought by Beauregard to “the screeching antics of so many flying monkeys.”

Beauregard, who is black, declined this week to say what he thinks of Swegle’s email, but he said his wife, attorney Leslie Beauregard, and other lawyers have told him they view it as racist.

Swegle, in a statement to The Seattle Times on Thursday, said his “email was misconstrued.”

“That apparent misinterpretation came as a complete surprise to me, and I promptly sent an email apologizing and clarifying my actual intent,” he said.

Swegle’s apology, sent to Leslie Beauregard and other lawyers, explained that his statements were made “with absolutely no intent of racial overtones whatsoever,” and were “intended only as a reference to the most chaotic scenes in the Wizard of Oz and to call out chaotic and baseless attacks by numerous persons, nothing more.”

Swegle and Bridges also separately dismissed Papailiou’s proposal to remove them from the board as the latest in a string of unwarranted attacks.

“Regretfully, a small number such as the Board member here who have not gotten their way, are intent on creating the appearance of chaos where there is none,” said Bridges, who also has disputed the sex harassment claims against him as politically motivated. “That Mr. Papailiou is resorting to the same personal politics that have infected our national debate is regrettable but seen for what it is.”

In his ruling Thursday, Rogoff rejected the bar’s arguments that only the Supreme Court has jurisdiction and authority over legal matters involving the organization and that it isn’t a public agency subject to the state’s open meetings law.

The judge pointed out the statute creating the bar defines it as “an agency of the state,” and the legal community historically has viewed the bar as a public entity. Noting the bar “enforces rules that affect the general public every day,” Rogoff concluded the organization answers not only to its members but “is accountable to the public it serves.”

“The idea that the WSBA is something other than a state agency is in direct contravention to the manner in which it does business,” the judge ruled. “For purposes of the OPMA, it is a state agency.”

Overseen by the Washington Supreme Court, the bar association is a self-regulating agency of legal professionals that derives its funding through mandatory fees of $453 per year paid by each of its roughly 40,000 members. A proposal now before the Legislature would further clarify the Supreme Court’s authority over the bar and eventually could result in changes to the organization’s structure. A work group appointed by the high court is now examining the bar’s structure amid two recent federal court rulings and is expected to make recommendations later this year.