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Court sides with Judge Carruthers in lawsuit against city

Municipal Court Judge Kate Carruthers will have her hours and pay returned to their previous level after winning a lawsuit she filed last February against her employer, the City of Bainbridge Island.

While making numerous budget cuts last year, the city decided to decrease Carruthers' benefits and salary from a 0.67 full-time equivalent (FTE) to 0.50 in an effort to save about $30,000 in 2011.

The city said the action was legal because Carruthers had agreed to an "appropriations" paragraph in the four-year contract she had signed in Oct. 28, 2009, which said, in part: "Terms of this agreement are contingent upon sufficient appropriations being made by the City Council for the performance of this agreement. If sufficient appropriations are not made, this agreement shall terminate."

Councilor Bob Scales, who had proposed the change during a lengthy budget meeting, argued that the pay cut was justified because the Adminstrative Office of the Courts (AOC) had assessed the island municipal court's needs at at 0.48.

Regardless, King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson ruled last Friday in favor of Carruthers in granting her motion for summary judgment.

Carruthers said the judge made the point while issuing her ruling that the city's action was in violation of the Washington State Constitution.

Carruthers' attorneys had argued that pursuant to Article 11, Section 8 of the State Constitution, "the salary of any…municipal officers shall not be…diminished…during term of office." And pursuant to state law, "[a] municipal judge shall be removed only upon conviction of misconduct or malfeasance in office, or because of physical or mental disability rendering the judge incapable of performing the duties of the office."

"I'm happy about the outcome," she said Tuesday. "As we thought would happen, the judge's ruling cited the State Constitution, and no my salary and benefits will be reinstated. It's just unfortunate we had to go through this."

Palmer's decision included back payment of Carruthers' salary and benefits at a 0.67 FTE level, and payment of damages equal to the salary/benefits withheld from January 2011 to the present. The city also was ordered to pay the judge's attorney fees.

The exact amount of the settlement is not yet determined, but Carruthers said the difference in the salaries was about $24,000, plus benefits.

City Manager Brenda wrote in an email that the ruling was disappointing because "the judge verbally consented at the council meeting where her contract was approved that if the city did not have sufficient budget, her 'FTE,' aka hours, could be reduced."

Bauer said that if the city doesn't appeal by Nov. 21, the court will issue a final order stipulating damages owed by the city as a settlement.

She said if the ruling stands, the city will need to modify the proposed 2012 budget to reflect the difference in pay between two-thirds time versus half-time employment.

"I feel great to be done with it," Carruthers said. "I believe in my job and I continued to do it to the best of my ability while the lawsuit was going on. And with the recent improvements in the court (located at Rolling Bay), no other issues need to be addressed. So I'm very happy."

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