The Dimond Courthouse building, home to the Juneau offices of the Alaska Department of Law, is seen across the street from the Alaska State Capitol on Friday, May 27, 2022. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)
A Juneau jury awarded almost $1.2 million to a former Alaska Department of Law attorney this week, finding at trial that the department failed to follow state laws governing promotions and then wrongfully fired her when she complained.
Joan Wilkerson, the attorney who filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the department, said she hopes the case will change the way the department handles cases like hers and said she has gotten “a lot of notes and expressions of appreciation” from current attorneys.
“I’ve done the right thing, and it cost me a lot,” she said.
“The Department of Law acknowledges and appreciates the jury’s service in Wilkerson v. Department of Law,” the agency said in a written statement issued in response to questions. “It remains the department’s position that the termination was done in accordance with the law, and the department will evaluate options regarding an appeal in the coming days.”
Jahna Lindemuth, attorney general under former Gov. Bill Walker and Wilkerson’s ultimate supervisor at the time of her firing, did not return messages seeking comment on Friday.
Kevin Higgins is a civil attorney seeking to organize a union of attorneys who are public employees. He said the case “is absolutely something I would point to and have pointed to as to why we should have a union.”
With a collective bargaining agreement, “there are lots of points along the way that could have prevented the result we saw here,” he said.
Alaska’s constitution requires the state to use a system “under which the merit principle will govern the employment of persons by the state.”
To do that, state law requires state employees to be paid with a system that uses specific written duties and specifications to assign a pay rate.
Wilkerson worked for the Department of Law starting in 2006 and was hired to represent the state Division of Retirement and Benefits. Though her position was designated for an “Attorney V,” she was hired as an “Attorney IV,” at a lower level of pay.
In 2015, she was hired to be the top attorney representing the retirement and benefits division and sought to be promoted to Attorney V, in part because of her experience and because the prior two people who served in that position had the same pay scale.
Managers declined her request, offering a variety of reasons for doing so, including that she lacked time in the position. She resubmitted the request several times over the following years, but was turned down each time.
In 2018, she appealed to the Alaska Department of Administration, which controls pay and benefits. That agency concluded that Wilkerson was correct and should have been paid at the higher rate, but by that point, the Department of Law had fired Wilkerson.
Wilkerson filed suit, but proceedings were delayed for years by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At trial this month in Juneau, attorney Mark Choate said he demonstrated through witness testimony that Wilkerson’s firing wasn’t because of a lack of skill or performance — as claimed by the state — but was in retaliation for her complaints.
“The jury concluded that she was fired for that reason,” he said, “and they did not give credence to the argument that Joan was just kind of a bad penny and was someone who had a difficult personality and didn’t take instruction.”
Choate said the case demonstrates that the Department of Law has failed to follow the state’s merit-based classification system, and he believes more people may have similar experiences.
“This is bigger than just Joan. There have been a lot of people who have been subjected to this unlawful system,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that irritates me the most about the Department of Law: They’re supposed to be following the law.”
The department said it acted legally.
“This incident occurred four years ago, and it’s unfortunate how it ended,” the department said in its statement. “Regardless of the outcome, the Department of Law is committed to ensuring fairness for all of its employees and is always looking at ways to improve its practices. The department wants to see all of its employees succeed and gives them opportunities to grow in their legal practice. This professional environment provides a mutual benefit for the state of Alaska and Department employees.”
Wilkerson is now retired and works part of the year as an aide to Rep. Calvin Schrage, I-Anchorage. She said she hopes the Department of Law will change its promotion policies and instead follows state law.
The biggest takeaway, she said, is “that no one is above the law, not even lawyers.”
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