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Rumpler sues North Idaho College, trustees

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | February 24, 2024 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Laura Rumpler, North Idaho College’s former chief communications officer, is suing the college, alleging trustees violated the terms of her employment contract and Idaho’s employment laws and deprived her of due process rights.

Filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the civil complaint names NIC and college trustees Tarie Zimmerman, Brad Corkill, Mike Waggoner, Todd Banducci and Greg McKenzie in their official capacities as board members.

Rumpler seeks a jury trial, at least $75,000 in attorney fees and damages amounting to at least $141,822 due to lost wages and benefits, “damage to her personal and professional reputation” and “emotional distress.” She has also asked the court to force trustees to enter executive session in order to consider her grievance against NIC President Nick Swayne and former Chief Human Resources Officer Karen Hubbard.

A threatened lawsuit over an undisclosed personnel matter, which the college has reportedly been aware of since March 2023, has caused friction among trustees for months. But it wasn’t confirmed until this week, when Rumpler’s civil complaint was filed, that she was the former employee who had threatened to sue.

Rumpler resigned from her position in September 2023, after more than six years at NIC.

The complaint alleges that NIC, the board of trustees and the college president created an “unsafe and untenable” workplace for Rumpler through “toxic, retaliatory and harassing conduct” that ultimately left her with “no choice but to resign.”

In June 2023, Rumpler submitted a grievance to the board of trustees and the college’s legal counsel. The details of the grievance remain unclear.

“Without disclosing Rumpler’s private and confidential personnel information, Rumpler claimed (Swayne and Hubbard) engaged in tortious, harassing and retaliatory conduct when she participated in the defense of a lawsuit President Swayne had brought against NIC regarding the board’s decision to place him on administrative leave,” Rumpler’s civil complaint said.

Rumpler had previously signed a two-year “retention contract” for employment, which appeared to be unique among NIC employees, that runs from April 30, 2022 through June 23, 2024. Except for Rumpler, only the college president and interim president have contracts longer than one year.

The contract, which was signed by former interim president Michael Sebaaly and notorized, says NIC would reclassify Rumpler’s position to align with “the level of responsibility, autonomy, decision-making, skillset and representation of an associate vice president or vice president.” The agreement also stipulated that Rumpler would move to a higher pay grade in July 2023.

NIC later confirmed that Rumpler’s position was no longer being reclassified.

Rumpler alleges that Hubbard refused to reclassify Rumpler in retaliation for Rumpler’s participation in Swayne’s reinstatement lawsuit and, through that refusal, violated the terms of her employment contract. 

The board hired Spokane-based firm Randall Danskin to investigate the matter and produce a report, which was completed in October 2023.

Court records indicate neither Rumpler nor Swayne received copies of the report until Swayne sued for one, alleging NIC had violated Idaho’s public records laws by denying his request for the document.

In January, a judge ruled the report is a public record not exempt from disclosure to Swayne and ordered NIC to turn over a redacted copy to him. In her civil complaint, Rumpler maintains a belief that the report is not a public record and not disclosable.

“At the beginning of the confidential report, the investigator identified the toxic, harmful and retaliatory environment at NIC that was entirely unrelated to the personnel claims raised by Rumpler in her grievance,” Rumpler’s complaint said in part. “The investigator found there was a toxic climate at NIC arising from the board’s dynamics, Swayne’s lawsuit, the court’s ultimate decision to reinstate President Swayne and unlawful disclosures by certain trustees.”

Rumpler’s complaint said the report also concludes this environment made witnesses “fearful of retaliation by the board,” which made them reluctant to participate in the personnel investigation.

Rumpler alleges that Zimmerman and Corkill have showed “a clear and unfair bias” against Rumpler and have deprived her of due process under the law because they have refused to enter executive session to discuss her grievance. Four out of five trustees must agree to an executive session.

Corkill and Zimmerman have declined to enter executive session to discuss Rumpler’s grievance and the investigative report on five occasions between August 2023 and January 2024. On these occasions, the board subsequently put off action items related to the investigation that were slated for the open session.

Both Zimmerman and Corkill have said they’re uncomfortable going behind closed doors to discuss Rumpler’s complaint.

“I think if there’s anything that needs to be discussed at this point, it should be discussed in open session,” Corkill said during a Jan. 24 board meeting.

Idaho’s open meeting laws outline the limited circumstances in which a public body or agency may enter executive session; these include hearing complaints against a public employee.

But the law does not require closed meetings for any of those circumstances. In other words, trustees may address Rumpler’s complaint in open session if they choose to do so.

The complaint also confirms Rumpler initially sought a $1.3 million settlement from NIC.

Zimmerman revealed the figure during a special meeting in August, when the board voted 3-2 to negotiate the terms of a settlement with a then-undisclosed former employee. At that time, the third-party investigation into Rumpler’s grievances was incomplete.

“Does anybody want to open their bank account?” Zimmerman said. “I think the sum — can I say the sum? $1.3 million. That’s on the taxpayers' back.”

She did not identify Rumpler by name.

The suit contends Zimmerman’s disclosure was “unlawful” because she learned the information in an executive session and alleges she revealed the $1.3 million figure “to disparage and cause personal and professional harm to Rumpler,” knowing others would deduce that Rumpler was the employee who had threatened to sue.

Read the full complaint at cdapress.com.