WASHINGTON — The Seattle-based FBI special agent who oversees all bureau operations in Washington state is embroiled in a legal fight with officials who she says have discriminated against her and undermined her work.
In a revealing lawsuit that partially cleared a key hurdle Thursday, Special Agent-in-Charge Laura M. Laughlin complained that she has been denied at least 10 promotions since she took over the FBI’s Seattle field office in early 2005. She also asserts she’s been pressured since 2007 to retire from the high-profile position and has been denied requests for added staffing.
“As a combined effect of all these matters, she is not respected as a leader by her subordinates and management chain in the way that (special agents-in-charge) normally are,” attorneys David Wachtel and Eliza Dermody wrote in one legal brief.
On Thursday, in a 31-page decision, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates sided with the FBI in dismissing some of the complaint that Laughlin filed in 2011. Bates, for instance, rejected Laughlin’s age discrimination claim with the observation that “pressure to retire, without more, does not constitute objectively tangible harm.” Laughlin turned 55 last year. Bates also dismissed Laughlin’s claims that the FBI created a hostile work environment through its actions.
“The acts span a period of several years and were relatively infrequent,” Bates concluded, adding that “these isolated incidents are not fairly characterized as pervasive.”
But in a blow to the agency that Laughlin joined in 1985, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Bates said the longtime law enforcement officer can proceed with her sex discrimination and retaliation claims.
The FBI, Bates said, “has not met its burden of showing that Laughlin failed to exhaust” potential administrative remedies.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., not far from FBI headquarters, Laughlin’s lawsuit is a relatively rare, though not-unheard of, case of a special agent challenging the bureau’s management in court. It’s particularly unusual, in part, because of Laughlin’s own prominent position within the bureau.
As a result of not being promoted, she is now the bureau’s second-longest serving special agent-in-charge in the country.
“We are not commenting on pending litigation,” FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said in an email.
Laughlin could not be reached to comment Thursday.
As special agent-in-charge, she oversees the Seattle office, as well as nine satellite locations in Tacoma, Olympia, Richland and elsewhere. She administers a staff of some 300 agents and support personnel and has been in the public spotlight for investigations into crimes ranging from mortgage fraud to child sexual abuse. Her discrimination lawsuit, though, has not previously attracted much, if any, media attention.
Laughlin first complained of bureau behavior in 1997, when she filed an internal discrimination complaint against a supervisor. That complaint was subsequently settled.
Shortly after arriving in Seattle, Laughlin said in a legal filing, she discovered “multiple instances of race and sex discrimination and insubordination directed at a supervisory special agent in her division by two white, male special agents.” Laughlin further claimed the two white agents “had the support of a close associate” of FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Laughlin says she reassigned the two white agents. Shortly thereafter, in June 2006, she says the FBI “severely damaged” her reputation when it took the “unprecedented step” of transferring a major murder investigation to another field office. The investigation in question was into the 2001 murder of federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in his Seattle home. The murder remains unsolved.
“After 27 years in the FBI, (Laughlin) has worked her way up to a position with a high level of responsibility, only to find that she no longer has the opportunity for advancement that her peers have (and) she no longer has control of all bureau operations in her jurisdiction,” Laughlin’s attorneys wrote.