Advocacy, Class Actions and Food Trucks

Beth Terrell takes on cases and causes for those without a voice

Published in 2023 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

By Steph Weber on July 27, 2023

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Beth Terrell is in the midst of another sleep-deprived 80-hour week, handling depositions for a multimillion-dollar discrimination suit against the University of Washington Police Department. She is representing five Black officers who allege they experienced severe racial discrimination while working at the university. Most of their accounts date back to 2017.

Raised in rural Idaho, Terrell got a degree in philosophy and political science from Gonzaga, then headed for Northern California in 1990 for a job with a nonprofit serving the Bay Area’s homeless population. But with shelters and nonprofits losing funding and closing their doors, she found it frustrating.

“I wanted to impact the number of resources available, not just [be] the messenger saying there’s almost nothing I can do for you,” she says. So she enrolled at UC Davis School of Law, a “perfect fit” due to its public interest focus, and became the first lawyer in her family.

In 1996, Terrell moved to Seattle. The plan was to work with a poverty-law organization. But, says Terrell, “The funding was getting cut and there were no jobs.” So she took a position with Tousley Brain Stephens doing class actions. She recalls thinking:

“Well, this is different and interesting. I’m not helping someone prevent their eviction or negotiating with a case manager to reinstate food stamps, but I’m doing impact litigation. If I can maneuver to the right type of litigation, I can change some of the systems.”

So she took on a mix of discrimination, civil rights and employment cases for plaintiffs while also gravitating toward consumer fraud class actions and wage and hour matters. In 2008, wanting to focus on worker and consumer litigation, she and three partners opened a firm in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. 

Along the way, she developed partnerships with local nonprofits, including Public Justice (where she served as president), and the Northwest Consumer Law Center (board chair).

“They see people on the front lines experiencing unfair and deceptive conduct, and we bring class action expertise,” Terrell says. “Rather than just helping one person, we can help hundreds or thousands.”

In an ongoing suit against Virginia Mason health system, the class includes a potential 84,000 members. The claims stem from tracking pixels embedded in the hospital’s patient portal that allegedly collected and disclosed users’ sensitive medical information to Facebook and Google. In March, the Washington State Supreme Court sided with Terrell, denying the defendant’s motion for discretionary review of class certification.

Last December, Terrell joined the executive committee in a separate class action against Facebook’s Meta filed in the Northern District of California. Patients from several hospitals, including MedStar Health and Rush University Medical Center, claim the social media company’s free and publicly available data tracking tool enabled the compilation of their personal health information for targeted advertising.

Terrell has also held debt-collection agencies accountable for preying on the vulnerable—something she says occurs too often, despite strict state and federal regulations.

But her focus on a spring afternoon is the case against UW Police. “The more we learn, the more disturbing it is,” Terrell says. The officers allege that racial stereotypes and slurs, including “monkey” and the n-word, were used repeatedly by white colleagues, along with threats of retaliation against those who reported misconduct. The university, having faced allegations of racism from other police officers as far back as 1998, has vowed to investigate and take appropriate action.

“It’s our hope that this case will finally end decades of systemic racism within the department,” says Terrell.

Now working mainly from a satellite office in Sequim or her farm in Port Angeles, Terrell has thrown her support behind local causes. “I’m representing a food truck operator and working with the Sequim Planning Commission to break down the barriers that keep food trucks from operating freely within the city,” she says. It may seem trivial compared to her other heavy-hitting cases, but Terrell says it all comes back to creating opportunities for those who need them. “There is a whole group of restaurant entrepreneurs out there who, without the ability to start as a food truck, will probably never open a brick-and-mortar restaurant because of the intense capital requirements,” she says. “This can give them a chance.”

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