A former high-ranking official with the Washington Department of Health who was fired for criticizing Spokane’s health board filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming her ouster violated her right to free speech.
Erika Henry, formerly the assistant secretary for emergency preparedness and response for the state health department, was fired last year over an email she sent from a private account to the Spokane Board of Health. The email, written Oct. 30, 2020, was among many from citizens who criticized the Spokane board and health district administrator Amelia Clark for ousting Spokane Health Officer Bob Lutz.
Henry, who did not identify herself as a state employee in the email, wrote that she was “appalled” by the board’s support of Clark’s “baseless claims against Dr. Lutz.”
“Many of you know him personally and professionally, have for years. Yet you let an insecure weakling of a leader strong-arm you into ousting him based on vague claims of what… personality conflict?” Henry’s email read, referring to Clark. “Tell her to grow up and do her job.”
The claim filed in Spokane County Superior Court on Tuesday names as defendants the Washington Department of Health, Secretary of Health Umair Shah, and Department of Health Chief of Staff Jessica Todorovich, among others. None of them were immediately available for comment Tuesday.
Shah learned of the email Henry sent the Spokane health board during a visit to Spokane in February 2021. The state health department launched an internal investigation, with Shah claiming he was “LIVID and SHOCKED” by it, according to the internal investigation.
Henry was fired in May 2021. The termination letter cited Henry’s “inappropriate” word choice and tone in her email to the health board. It also said Henry should have notified Shah about the email when Shah was appointed as Secretary of Health in December 2020.
The wrongful termination claim filed Tuesday, however, alleges Henry was fired instead to smooth over the relationship between the Spokane Regional Health District and the state health department.
“Henry’s career and reputation were ruined to appease an independent local health board and to send a political message from Defendant Shah,” the lawsuit states.
Henry is seeking compensation for lost wages and benefits along with nominal and punitive damages.
Henry’s attorney, Marcus Sweetser, notes that when Henry wrote her email in October 2020, she was among “thousands and thousands” of voices expressing concern over Lutz being let go in the middle of a pandemic. He adds that Henry’s supervisor initially told her she had a right to express herself “as a private citizen to your local board,” but now faces “financial ruin” for expressing her opinion.
“Free speech is not about what is said, but the right to say it,” Sweetser said in a statement. “The most dangerous thing is when good people are made to fear dissenting; when public servants are forced to stand by and say nothing.”
Lutz is now a medical advisor for Washington’s COVID-19 response. A preliminary state investigation found that Lutz was fired illegally by Clark in October 2020. He has filed a $1.4 million claim against the local health district alleging wrongful termination.
Henry recently accepted a job as deputy director for the Washington State Broadband Office in the Washington Department of Commerce.