Hossein Barahimi and Ho-Chuan Chen, two King County Transportation Planners, complained to their boss about King County allowing a major homebuilder to begin developing 1,500 homes in rural Redmond. They told anyone who would listen that the existing two-lane roads cutting through rural King County could not support this 1,500 home development, and that there were no plans for the next six years for the construction of roadways that would accommodate this sizable development. Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen insisted that the new development would cause traffic gridlock in the Redmond Ridge area surrounding the development. Instead of listening to Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen, these veteran planners were laid off.
Fortunately their union stepped in and they kept their jobs. But the retaliation did not stop. For the next six years, Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen were isolated, shunned, and given poor work performance appraisals. Dr. Chen was demoted from a supervisory position to what amounts to an entry level Transportation Planner job.
In 2004, a whistleblower suit was brought against two of the managers and King County on behalf of Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen. It was litigated to the Ninth Circuit Court and Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen prevailed. But the workplace conditions continued to worsen, especially for Mr. Barahimi. Despite a Master’s Degree in Engineering specializing in Transportation Planning, and 15 years of experience in the field, Mr. Barahimi’s new boss treated him as though he had no clue how to do his job.
In 2007, a second lawsuit was brought against the new supervisor and King County on Mr. Barahimi’s behalf alleging violations of his First Amendment right to be free of retaliation for his whistleblowing efforts. The two lawsuits were consolidated and it moved forward in federal court. After a nine-day trial, the jury found in Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen’s favor, concluding the three individual defendants retaliated against the plaintiffs for their whistleblowing.
There is an interesting epilogue to this case. Right after they won their case in federal court, King County passed a new ordinance to protect whistleblower employees and it was characterized as among the strongest in the nation. Mr. Barahimi and Dr. Chen are heroes. They stuck their necks out for rural King County residents. Then, at the end of the day, their efforts made it safer for the 13,000 King County employees to do the same without fear of reprisal.