Older claims tossed; former employee Chancellor says new claims to come
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
A workplace discrimination lawsuit against the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department (ARPD) has been partially dismissed, with claims outside the statute of limitations to be removed.
Though plaintiff Laura Chancellor has alleged wrongdoing occurring repeatedly during the 18 years she worked for the city, an opinion issued Nov. 22 by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge David Hoppe prevents Chancellor from seeking damages for alleged acts prior to Sept. 29, 2019.
Hoppe’s ruling does not prevent past allegations from being used during trial to establish a pattern of harassment, but such allegations may only support claims of wrongdoing within the statute of limitations.
Chancellor was allowed to re-file her lawsuit to reflect the partial dismissal, as well as clarify the evidence which allegedly supports the remaining claims. Chancellor attorney Tom Dimitre said he is prepared to file an amended complaint to conform with Hoppe’s ruling, and reflect additional allegations against the city.
‘Disappointed’ in having to leave
Chancellor, the former superintendent of Oak Knoll Golf Course, filed suit Feb. 21 seeking $750,000 for allegedly being marginalized and harassed by multiple co-workers due to her gender and sexuality over the course of several years. She was placed on leave in March, and resigned from her position in June.
Chancellor told Ashland.News that leaving the city left her conflicted because, though she loved her job, the stress was taking its toll on her health, even the stress of potentially returning, with her “stomach in knots every day.” Chancellor and Dimitre described her departure as “constructive discharge,” which means she felt forced to quit due to workplace hostilities, and Dimitre said the amended complaint will include this among new causes for damages.
Since leaving the city, Chancellor said she has not gained new employment, nor does she live in Ashland anymore. She said the circumstances of her departure have created ambiguities in her job hunt, because even though she technically resigned, that term does not tell the entire story.
“It has forced me into a position that I wouldn’t know what to put on an application,” she said.
Chancellor said she wouldn’t mind finding employment in a similar field, but reiterated she didn’t want to leave the job she had.
“I loved my job,” she said. “I felt disappointed having to quit because I felt the parks and the city failed to protect me…The system failed. The system is set up on paper, but it doesn’t work in reality.”
Motion to dismiss
After Chancellor filed her suit, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that Chancellor had not demonstrated why she was entitled to damages. They argued the bulk of claims were outside the statute of limitations, while remaining claims were either too vague or failed to establish why defendants were liable.
Along with APRD and the city of Ashland, the suit named APRD Director Michael Black and department employees Jason Minica, Chris Ward and Joseph Hyde as defendants, as well as city mechanic Mark Trenton.
The motion was argued during a hearing Sept. 26 in Jackson County Circuit Court, with both sides leaning on a prior discrimination case filed in Oregon against Amtrak in 1996. A lower court ruled Amtrak was not liable for actions outside the statute of limitations, however in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled older actions can still be litigated if they demonstrate that allegations within the appropriate time period were part of a larger pattern of discrimination.
Travis Merritt, representing Ashland, said the 2002 ruling did not mean past actions could become their own individual claims, but could only be introduced to support claims occurring within the statute of limitations.
“Is very clear that related acts can’t be used in this way,” he told the court.
Dimitre argued patterns of discrimination, by their nature, comprise a series of individual actions over a period of time, and a claim of ongoing harassment requires specific examples to prove a pattern.
“There may be a long list of actions that have occurred that are harassing and those cumulatively add up to a claim of harassment,” he said.
Hoppe closed the hearing without a decision and parties waited nearly two months for a ruling. His Nov. 22 decision reflected Merritt’s views and defendants’ motion was granted.
One caveat in the issue of dismissal was a recent change in Oregon law that extended the statute of limitations for civil harassment claims from one year to five years. The law took effect Sept. 29, 2019, but it was not retroactive, meaning any claims Chancellor had not initiated at that time would not be covered under the new timeline, according to defendants’ motion for dismissal.
This means Chancellor may seek damages only for actions after the date the new law took effect, even though five years has yet to pass from that date.
Prepared to move forward
Dimitre said there are more than enough allegations within that timeframe to move forward with the suit, including an incident in late 2021 when Chancellor says she approached Black about what she said were significant pay disparities between herself and her coworkers. Chancellor said she was making $4-6 per hour less than male employees who had less experience or were in a lower position, and Black allegedly replied by saying Chancellor should file for a promotion if she wanted higher pay.
Dimitre also pointed to the alleged constructive discharge of Chancellor in June. He said, when an employee has followed established protocol to resolve workplace hostilities, and their workplace fails to protect them, that employee shouldn’t feel forced to leave.
“Why does the victim have to lose their job and the perpetrator get to continue on with their job?” he said.
Dimitre said he also remains ready to raise allegations of past wrongdoing, even if they are no longer among claims for damages. He said numerous past employees have already described in depositions what he characterized as rampant harassment, and he plans to depose the administrators Chancellor reported concerns to, including then-Human Resources Director Tina Grey and former Interim City Administrator Adam Hanks, and ask why they did or did not take action.
“Part of our goal is to take the depositions of the perpetrators, which are scheduled, and find out from them what’s been going on,” he said. “It’s not like the city wasn’t on notice. They knew.”
Dimitre said the city had ample opportunity to improve workplace conditions after they were sued twice in recent years by former employees who alleged workplace discrimination and retaliation, resulting in more than $1 million in damages.
In 2017, former engineer Pieter Smeenk sued for wrongful termination in federal court, claiming he was fired after confronting city leaders about a $769,000 public works contract that violated public bid procedures and contained excessive fees, in addition to unrelated prior acts of retaliation since 2010. In 2019, a jury found Ashland liable for whistleblower retaliation and awarded Smeenk $259,637, with an additional $260,595 granted by the court for attorney’s fees.
Ashland was sued again in 2018 in federal court by former APRD employee and Senior Center Director Christine Dodson, who claimed city administrators including Black retaliated after she pursued eight years of unpaid overtime after being misclassified as a salaried employee between 2007 and 2015. Dodson settled her wage dispute in 2016, but unexpectedly began receiving negative performance reviews and was then laid off in 2017 during an administrative overhaul of the Senior Program Department.
Dodson’s subsequent lawsuit for wrongful termination was settled in 2019 with a $538,000 payout from the city. Ashland admitted no wrongdoing, but a letter to Dodson from Black and then-City Administrator Kelly Madding said her termination “could have been handled better” and commended Dodson for her good work and dedication to the program.
Dimitre said these legal losses demonstrate Ashland lacks a serious commitment to the rights of its employees, and has foregone past opportunities to improve its human resources management.
“There’s ample evidence to show there was a problem,” he said.
Chancellor calls for more oversight by commissioners
Dimitre added the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC), which oversees APRD and its employees, has been complicit by allegedly allowing these problems to continue. Though APRD is a city entity, APRC was established by the city charter to oversee the department and its resources through an elected board.
“(APRC) has made it clear they are not willing to rein this stuff in,” said Dimitre. “If they have oversight of Michael Black, they should have been doing something for the last decade.”
Recent measures to divest APRC of control over APRD personnel and finances failed during the Nov. 8 election following strong pushback from APRC board members and their supporters.
Chancellor said, when the powers that be fail to stand up for city employees, it sends a message that victimizing and harassing co-workers is allowable, and efforts to report harassment won’t be taken seriously.
“I think it does fall on the city, I think it also falls on the parks commission,” she said, saying their alleged inaction “leads people to believe it’s OK for (Black) to do what he does.”
Chancellor said she hopes her lawsuit will result in just compensation for the wages she’s lost and suffering she’s endured, but also in changes to city policy that allow better protection for people in her situation. And for those who currently find themselves in hostile work environments, Chancellor encouraged them not to wait for toxic co-workers to improve their behavior but to take action.
“Now’s the time,” she said. “Talk to someone. Talk to your supervisor. If that doesn’t work, find a lawyer to talk to them. It needs to stop.”