The city of Newberg found itself on the wrong side of a verdict last week in a long-running court case.
On Sept. 25, a Yamhill County Circuit Court jury found in favor of the plaintiff in the case, Greg Patton, in a civil suit he filed in 2017 claiming the city racially discriminated against him when he applied for a position in 2016 as a human resources assistant with the city. Patton is African-American.
"My client feels vindicated and hopes the city takes the necessary corrective actions to prevent this behavior in the future," said Sean Riddell, a Portland attorney and Patton's counsel.
Interim City Manager David Clyne said the city couldn't comment before press time on Tuesday morning.
"Unfortunately, the city council has not been briefed on the case yet, nor on whether the matter will be appealed," he said. "The briefing is tentatively scheduled for the next council meeting (Oct. 7). We should have comments immediately thereafter."
The jury awarded Patton $83,500 in economic damages and $200,000 in non-economic damages following the two-day trial in McMinnville last week.
"The jury awarded the plaintiff exactly what he asked for," Riddell said, adding that he is unsure if the damages will come from city coffers or from its insurance carrier, CIS Oregon. "I know CIS is involved, but I do not know who is responsible to pay the verdict."
The city was represented by Andrew Campbell of the Salem law firm Heltzel Williams PC.
Riddell said the case against the city was fairly simple: "(Patton) asserted that his race as an African-American was a substantial factor in the city's decision not to hire him."
Jury verdict clear
In the verdict, at least nine of the 12 jurors found the city was guilty of race discrimination under Oregon statutes and a question proffered to the jury by Judge John Collins that asked, "Did the plaintiff Patton prove by a preponderance of the evidence that his race was a substantial factor in defendant city of Newberg decision to not hire him."
Having answered in the affirmative, the jury was then asked "Did plaintiff Patton prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the city of Newberg intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff based on plaintiff's race?" Again the jury answered yes, as it did when asked if the city's actions had caused Patton damage.
City administrators maintained from the onset that Patton, 54 and from Tigard, was passed over for the position because they found a better-qualified applicant, Jennifer Ortiz. She was subsequently hired in fall 2016, but is no longer with the city. The half-time position paid $33.83 an hour.
"The person the city did hire is a bright, intelligent, pleasant person with a compelling life story," Riddell said. "She is not to blame for any of the city's conduct."
Ortiz is identified in court records as being of Asian descent and was working toward an accounting certificate at Portland Community College at the time of her hiring. She has a background in municipal government, including stints as an accounting specialist for the city of Wilsonville and finance technician for the city of Sherwood.
Patton 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.
The city consistently argued that the job posting for the position clearly indicated that education was just one of the criteria for qualifying for the position. 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.
However, Riddell argued otherwise during the trial. He submitted as evidence a copy of the job posting that indicated only education was a factor in an applicant being considered for the position. He said the discrepancy could be attributed to the city altering the document, later adding the proviso that work experience would be weighted equally with a degree in human resources. He further claimed that the city altered the applicant scores rendered by the committee that interviewed the two candidates.
The position description initially provided to the court and to BOLI during Patton's unsuccessful 2017 complaint against the city did indeed say a degree was preferred, but that experience and training could substitute for education. BOLI chose not to investigate the matter after finding insufficient evidence that the city had discriminated against Patton.
Basis for lawsuit starts with open city position
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."
City accused of nepotism
Patton insisted that Ortiz was hired because she was friends with 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.
"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."
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