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These Bad Bosses Passed Over a Star Employee in Favor of “Young and Perky”

Kelly O’Kell was in her mid-fifties when her new boss, Clinton Wertz, stood in her office and told her he’d never hire a woman her age, according to court testimony.

Along with his deputy, Clyde Lay, Wertz pushed managers to favor “young and new” people at the Ephrata, Wash. field office of the U.S. Department of the Interior, according to a complaint filed later by O’Kell — a pattern of favoritism that was confirmed by the judge in the case.

When O’Kell applied for a promotion for which she’d been told she was the only viable in-house contender, Wertz passed her over in favor of an outsider who had never worked for the federal government. Wertz’s purported reason, as O’Kell testified she heard via a colleague: The other candidate — a slender, blonde woman under 40 — was “young and perky.”

Wertz and Lay brushed off O’Kell when she asked about the decision, she testified, so she contacted an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor. As soon as her bosses heard about her EEO complaint they began to treat her differently, the judge found: They disciplined O’Kell for how she was expressing her frustration, he said, even as her substantive complaints “fell into a black hole.”

“Clint and Clyde are coming after you,” O’Kell’s direct manager warned her as he meted out punishment that came from above, she testified.

O’Kell’s pushback was framed as creating a hostile work environment, and ultimately she was fired for rudeness, among other offenses. She hasn’t found comparable work since.

Clinton Wertz and Clyde Lay are our Bad Bosses of the Month.

O’Kell filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department, claiming age discrimination and retaliation. A federal judge ruled in her favor after an 11-day bench trial, awarding her almost $1.7 million in damages and ordering the agency to remove all tainted discipline records from O’Kell’s personnel file.

An appeals court later told the judge to adjust his damages calculations; a revised judgment remains pending at this writing.

Government was O’Kell’s second career. Originally a trusts lawyer, she was self-employed before a series of accidents made it impossible to find her own health insurance, she told the judge. In 2008, she took a job with the Interior Department in Wyoming, moved to Oregon in 2011, and arrived in Ephrata in 2014. She worked there as a realty specialist, handling the federal government’s land sales, land purchases, and land access requests.

In 2015, Clinton Wertz was named as the Ephrata office’s field manager — and the atmosphere changed, O’Kell testified. Asked soon afterward by her direct manager, Anthony Ortiz, to help him vet a list of potential hires, she heard about a new directive.

“Tony told us … that Clint told him repeatedly we’re only to hire the young and new,” she testified. “One [person on the list], Tony told me … ‘She’s probably your age,’ so he scratched her off.”

Among the new hires chosen: A younger woman named Sarah Maciel who, when she started work at the Ephrata field office, repeatedly called O’Kell “grandma” despite being asked to stop, O’Kell testified.

Not long after Maciel’s arrival, according to O’Kell, Wertz came into to a room where both women worked and, holding forth, said he’d never hire a woman over 50 “because they can’t carry the workload like a man.” O’Kell was 56 at the time.

Just a few months later, Wertz would select Maciel — who was two grades below O’Kell on the government scale — for an interview panel that helped to evaluate her senior colleague for a promotion, a decision the judge drily called “unusual.”

Maciel’s participation wasn’t the only odd aspect of O’Kell’s promotion denial. Wertz had recently brought aboard Clyde Lay, with whom he’d previously worked, as his deputy. The two men consulted on hiring decisions, according to one witness, and “it always worked out … that the people they were hiring were the young girls, young ladies.”

Nonetheless, both Lay and Wertz told O’Kell that she was “the only person in the office” who was qualified for the new position, according to O’Kell’s complaint. So when O’Kell appeared before the interview panel, she testified, she was shocked that Wertz acted with obvious disinterest.

“He was kicked back in his chair with his foot up on his knee, and he was texting and laughing,” she told the judge. “He occasionally put his phone down when he asked me a question, but then, as soon as he was done with his note, he would pick his phone back up. And he really maybe looked at me twice through the whole interview, maybe three or four times. Not often. It was so minimal. It was so uncomfortable.”

Instead of O’Kell, Wertz chose to hire the other person who interviewed, a slim younger woman with no federal experience. Wertz told Lay to break the news via phone to O’Kell, who was at a training session in Idaho. At first she took the disappointment in stride, but then she went out to dinner at a Red Robin with a group of colleagues including Sarah Maciel — her junior, who had sat on her interview panel — and “asked her if there was anything I could have done different.”

According to O’Kell, Maciel was blunt about Wertz’s rationale: “All things being equal, the other candidate was young and perky and going to bring new energy to the office.”

“I went out behind the restaurant behind a dumpster because I wasn’t going to let them see me cry,” O’Kell told the judge. “And I cried behind the dumpster, and I stayed out there through their whole dinner. I went back in … and my dinner was sitting there, and I couldn’t eat. Sarah started talking about [how] the longer I worked there, the more I’ll understand management.”

Ironically, O’Kell would later receive a “STAR award” that honored her as “an example of knowledge, quality, and extra effort.” Wertz had signed it on May 19, 2016, the very same day O’Kell learned of her non-selection, the court heard.

The following week, O’Kell confronted Wertz and Lay separately but got nowhere. In court, Lay acknowledged that he’d understood O’Kell to be complaining about Wertz’s overt age bias — and that he responded by trying to end the discussion, saying that “I cannot imagine that Clint would ever say anything like that ever.”

“Clint wasn’t hiring all the young women,” Lay explained further to O’Kell, he testified: A female official was doing some of the hiring, too. Lay never reported the discussion to EEO officials, he told the judge, nor to anyone in human resources, nor even to Wertz. Instead, he “handed it off” to O’Kell’s direct manager, Lay’s subordinate, a man whom O’Kell testified was easily intimidated.

O’Kell contacted the agency’s EEO counselor herself. Her complaint was one of dozens made by Ephrata workers during this approximate period, the judge found — including several claims of age bias that were bolstered by quotes such as “we need young blood” and “older workers don’t go with the flow.”

Ephrata leaders learned within hours that O’Kell had filed a complaint, the judge said, and “immediately began to treat her differently.”

O’Kell’s direct boss, Ortiz, suspended her telework privileges and then issued her a letter of reprimand a few weeks later, supposedly for engaging in inappropriate conduct toward Maciel — an accusation that the judge said had credibility issues, and an outcome he found to be retaliatory.

Yet O’Kell gradually realized, she said in court, that Ortiz was just the messenger. “Please, this is not coming from me,” he’d say after returning from meetings with Wertz and Lay, she testified. “Don’t be mad at me.”

After she made a formal complaint of retaliation, Ortiz warned her that she was now firmly on Lay’s “hit list,” according to her complaint.

Long months of tension followed. The judge described this period as “an almost endless dispute.” O’Kell was investigated for supposed infractions, often for the tone of her responses to managers and co-workers, even as she brought more claims and her original complaint languished. Her manager Ortiz — whom she had come to see as a protector — died in an accident, and, even as grief counselors visited the office, she testified, Lay spoke ominously to her in the hallway.

“Now I finally got you where I want you,” she testified that he said.

To escape the Ephrata office, O’Kell applied for other jobs — but the reprimand in her file made it difficult. She asked Lay to remove it, but Lay testified that he replied that he’d do so only if she presented him with her signed acceptance of another job. The agency’s EEO specialist later said that Lay’s condition was “unacceptable” and evidence of retaliation, according to court documents.

A bit later that year, Lay issued O’Kell with a proposed three-day suspension — which was upheld by another manager — and gave O’Kell her first-ever poor performance rating.

In his letter proposing her suspension, Lay said he was disciplining O’Kell for “the continued inappropriate manner in which you choose to voice your [discrimination and retaliation] concerns. I am not prohibiting you from raising concerns. However, there are appropriate processes and forums to do so.”

The judge saw things differently, blaming the government itself for “abdicating [its] responsibilities” toward an employee in anguish. O’Kell’s “behavioral issues at work may have been born[] out of [her department’s] inaction” on her complaints, he found; her managers might have worked with their former star to “figure out and address the root cause of her behavior changes.”

O’Kell did use all the prescribed processes, the judge observed, but she got back nothing but frustration as her complaint went “uninvestigated and uncompleted.” He found her suspension to be rooted in retaliation.

Wertz’s role in the suspension is unclear, meanwhile, and he was about to leave the Ephrata office anyhow: According to Lay’s testimony, higher-ups felt that Wertz “wasn’t doing a good job.”

O’Kell was eventually fired in 2018, about two years after her original promotion denial. By that time the Interior Department still hadn’t issued any findings from its investigation of her first claim of discrimination, way back in 2016 — and it still hadn’t done so by the time the judge issued his findings in 2022.

By contrast, O’Kell’s firing was the result of a whirlwind investigation that started with Lay escorting her out of an employee luncheon to meet with a private investigator. It ended just two months later with a notice of proposed removal that cited multiple instances of O’Kell’s rudeness, unresponsiveness, lack of respect, and other “inappropriate conduct.”

But without the earlier retaliatory discipline, the judge found, O’Kell “would not have been terminated.” And the speedy investigation showed that the Interior Department was “fully capable” of completing an internal probe — it just “chose” not to do so for O’Kell’s allegations.

O’Kell filed her lawsuit about a month after her firing. A single mother of adult children, she had just made the final payment on a daughter’s student loan. She never had a chance, she testified, to start saving for her own retirement.

While waiting for the trial, O’Kell applied for about 100 jobs, she testified. She got just two offers — one of which was rescinded based on the government’s documentation of her termination. The other required a commute that she couldn’t handle for medical reasons.

By the time of the trial, which was delayed for COVID and other reasons, she was still unemployed. Lay, meanwhile, remained at the Ephrata field office.

» Read O’Kell’s complaint

» Read the judge’s findings

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in O’Kell v. Haaland. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

Kelly O’Kell was represented by Riverside NW Law Group.

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