City faces suit claiming racial discrimination
Like most municipalities, the city of Newberg is the brunt of lawsuits on a regular basis. From residents claiming the city's sidewalks are unsafe to property owners fighting the city's land use system, tort claims arrive at city hall all too frequently.
But a lawsuit filed in November is not only unique to the city, but carries with it much more serious ramifications should it be found valid.
An attorney for Greg Patton filed a civil suit in Yamhill County Circuit Court on Nov. 5 claiming he was racially discriminated against when he applied for a position in city administration.
The charge stems from Patton's July 2016 application for an open human resources assistant position with the city. Patton, through his counsel, Portland attorney Sean Riddell, argues that he was discriminated against because of his color and that, in fact, he was more qualified than the individual hired to fill the position. The half-time position, which paid $33.83 an hour, was filled by Jennifer Ortiz, who is no longer employed by the city.
"The City of Newberg hired another candidate for the Human Resources Assistant position," Riddell said in the November 2017 court filing. "There is sufficient information and belief to allege that the candidate the city hired did not meet the minimum qualifications and was not of African-American descent."
Ortiz is identified in court records as being of Asian descent and was working toward an accounting certificate at Portland Community College. She has a background in municipal government, however, including stints as an accounting specialist for the city of Wilsonville and finance technician for the city of Sherwood.
Patton, who is African-American, has a background in human resources as a parole and probation supervisor in community corrections at Clackamas County. He has an associate's degree in criminal justice from PCC and a bachelor's degree in human resource management from George Fox University.
However, the city argues that the job posting clearly indicated that education is just one of the criteria for qualifying for the position and that Riddell and Patton are not taking into account all of the criteria. In May 2017, City Attorney Truman Stone sent a letter to the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) to that effect.
"A review of the complete position description will show that Mr. Patton is intentionally misleading your agency by selectively including only a portion of the listed minimum qualifications for the position under education and experience," Stone wrote.
The position description in the city's job listing did indeed say a degree is preferred, but also added "Considerable experience of a progressively responsible nature in work involving human resources organizational management and operations" and "Any satisfactory equivalent combination of experience and training which ensures the ability to perform the work may substitute for the above."
Human Resources Director Anna Lee commented during the hiring process that Ortiz's qualifications were sufficient for her to be hired for the position: "As stated in her resume and demonstrated in her in-person panel interview, she meets the qualifications for the human resources assistant position."
While Patton received generally good marks from the panel that interviewed him, his recent job experience worked against him.
"While Mr. Patton has a degree in human resource management from George Fox University, in the interview panel's evaluation he did not have current or progressive experience and training to perform the work as listed in the complete job description," Lee wrote. "Mr. Patton did meet the minimum qualifications. However, the panel scored him below the top candidate, Ms. Ortiz."
Unsatisfied with the city's explanation, Patton and Riddell took their case to BOLI, but found no quarter there.
Patton engaged in a complaint interview by phone in June 2017 with BOLI Senior Investigator Moayyad Knoshnaw, with Riddell sitting in. In the interview, Patton acknowledged that he had been referred to the position by Newberg-Dundee Police Chief Brian Casey and claimed that Ortiz was hired because she friends with Anna Lee when they both worked in Sherwood. He also claimed that two of the three people on the city's interview panel were former Sherwood employees. City records indicating the identity of the panelists were redacted.
Ultimately, Patton argued, his race disqualified him for the job in the eyes of the panel.
"I connect my race from the perspective that I am black and I am more qualified that the person they hired and that the qualification was not considered," he said. "They knew that she is a secretary and I did do human resources work."
Patton insisted the panel was determined to hire Ortiz regardless of his qualifications, experience or race.
"No, even a white person did not have a chance because of Ms. Ortiz's relationship with these people," he said. "If you look at the application process … you will find out that I was more qualified, but because I am a black man I could feel when I entered the room that I had no chance."
The BOLI investigator was unconvinced.
"This letter is to inform you that the (Patton) complaint filed with the Civil Rights Division has been dismissed because the division did not find sufficient evidence to continue our investigation," a BOLI letter to Patton read. "This is the bureau's final determination. "If you disagree with this determination, you may wish to consult an attorney regarding your right to file a civil suit."
The city was similarly unimpressed with Patton's claims in an answer and counterclaim filed in November 2017 in Yamhill County Circuit Court.
"Defendant (the city) has valid, legitimate, objectively reasonable, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for all actions taken regarding the terms and conditions of plaintiff's employment, and such actions were not based upon any improper motive or take for any improper purpose," the counterclaim read.
Patton is seeking a jury award of $100,000 in economic damages (lost wages and benefits) and $200,000 in "emotional distress and suffering" resulting from not being hired. The city, in its counterclaim, is seeking an undisclosed amount of attorney fees.
The city is represented in the case by the Salem law firm of Heltzel Williams P.C. and attorney Andrew Campbell. A hearing in the case was held Tuesday in Yamhill County Circuit Court before Judge John Collins (results were unavailable at press time).
Requests for comment on the case from Newberg City Manager Joe Hannan were denied.