Former Clackamas County employee: 'Nothing but talk' about equity
A former Clackamas County employee has given notice she intends to file a lawsuit claiming a fellow Resolution Services department employee created a hostile work environment and discriminated against her due to her race while supervisors dismissed concerns.
According to a tort-claim notice filed Nov. 30, 2020, Khaleia Tyra Taylor Black alleged that a coworker treated her differently than white coworkers and on several occasions targeted her because she is Black and Latina. She is seeking damages of more than $15,000, injunctive relief and equitable remedies against the county.
The allegations come just months after the Clackamas Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution condemning violence and racism against Black Americans and people of color. It also comes as a dramatic saga continues to unfold in which racist and bigoted statements made by Commissioner Mark Shull have sparked statewide outrage and calls for his resignation.
The notice filed by Meyer Stephenson employment attorneys alleges that Susan Christensen — an office specialist within Resolution Services — actively sought to cause Taylor Black to fail within the workplace by improperly training her and turning around to berate her for mistakes created due to a lack of information and training. Taylor Black also claims Christensen attempted to publicly humiliate her by accusing her of stealing money, telling her she spoke too loudly and claiming Taylor Black was the antagonistic one.
According to the notice, employees within the department — which is overwhelmingly white — knew before Taylor Black joined their office in February of 2019 that Christensen was going to have a problem with her due to her race.
"Prior to Ms. Taylor Black beginning her employment with CCRS, a number of employees got together to ask, 'what are we going to do about Susan?'" the notice states. "The employees knew that longtime office specialist 2, Susan Christensen, would have a problem with Ms. Taylor Black."
The notice also claims that managers within the department — Amy Chase Herman and Director Lauren MacNeill — were dismissive of Taylor Black's attempts to gain recourse and create a better work environment.
According to the notice, meetings held by her manager between herself and Christensen were framed as a "mutual conflict" between the two employees despite managers knowing there was a racial component to Christensen's behavior.
"There were approximately three of these meetings in which it was discussed that Ms. Taylor Black should feel bad for Ms. Christensen because she grew up in a rural area and didn't have contact with 'people that looked like' Ms. Taylor Black," the claims stated. "At all relevant times, (the county) knew about the racial harassment that Ms. Taylor Black was experiencing but they did not take appropriate corrective action, as evidenced by the fact that the harassment did not cease."
According to the notice, both Taylor Black and another unnamed coworker in her department went to county HR to express their concerns, but were never meaningfully followed up on.
According to the notice, Taylor Black was not only passionate about her job, but did it well, receiving commendations from both her peers and patrons of the office.
"For example, she was told by one mediator how much he appreciated that she showed sensitivity and compassion to his clients while guiding them through an extremely hard process," the notice says. "In another instance, Ms. Taylor Black's work was the subject of a glowing online review of (the department). Ms. Taylor Black felt gratified to be able to help in this way."
According to the notice, Taylor Black was eventually terminated following an investigation into improper use of sick time stemming from a training opportunity Taylor Black attended in Multnomah County which she was previously denied funding to attend by department managers.
On April 6, 2020, Taylor Black was informed of this investigation and that she was being placed on administrative leave. Two days later, Taylor Black notified her boss, Amy Chase Herman, that she believed the county was retaliating against her for her ongoing complaints of racial discrimination.
According to the notice, white employees of Taylor Black's department often used sick time for non-medical related leave and were never chastised or investigated.
In late April 2020, Taylor Black went on medical leave and was eventually notified she was to be terminated effective June 30, 2020 due to unsatisfactory performance.
Attorneys on behalf of Taylor Black told Pamplin Media Group this week that she intends to file this lawsuit in the name of accountability.
"There's nothing but talk about a commitment to equity and inclusion, but as it plays out there's no demonstrated commitment to equity and inclusion," Stephenson said. "It is unacceptable. My client had just a very modest expectation, which was that she would be judged based on her work, not based on the color of her skin."
Stephenson said she believes Taylor Black's experience is proof there is still much work to be done in breaking down barriers for people of color striving to improve their workplace culture without fear of retaliation. She also said she worries about this case in the context of the situation surrounding Commissioner Mark Shull.
"I know that there are folks that want to speak up, but they fear retaliation, and this complaint of my client is the evidence that there will be retaliation if you speak up," Stephenson said. "So I'm not sure how the county is going to be able to demonstrate that there will be fidelity to these principles, and that they'll actually investigate and remediate harm."
Attorneys for Clackamas County responded to a request for comment Thursday, Jan. 28, stating that while the county does not comment on anticipated or pending litigation, the county remains committed to the principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.
"The county has been and remains committed to providing a work environment where everyone is welcome and free of discrimination and harassment," said Shawn Lillegren, county counsel.
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