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Complaint, filed by a city employee, alleges sexual harassment by a superior and a lack of action by city administration

GRAPHIC FILE PHOTO - A city of Newberg employee has filed a complaint with the Bureau of Labor & Industries claming sexual harassment in the workplace by one of her superiors.

The city of Newberg and a number of its department heads have been named in a searing complaint alleging sexual harassment in the workplace and city government's failure to take action to address it.

The complaint was filed by Brittney Jeffries with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). Jeffries, a longtime employee of the city who now works full-time in the city's IT department, claims she was sexually harassed over a four-year period by her immediate supervisor – Kaaren Hoffman – when she worked half-time in the city's engineering department.

The lengthy complaint, submitted to BOLI by attorney Daniel Thennell, alleges a years-long pattern of abuse by Hoffman and that administrators and others in city government failed to properly respond to her pleas for help.

Thennell declined to comment for this story.

In addition to Hoffman, named in the complaint are Interim City Manager David Clyne, City Attorney Truman Stone, Public Works Director Jay Harris, Human Resource Director Anna Lee and former city manager Joe Hannan. The Graphic sought comment from those city officials, but was referred to the city's outside counsel, Tracy McGovern, who didn't return emails seeking comment.

Clyne did submit a short response when queried: "The city has retained legal counsel to provide an official response to the complaint. We have no further comment pending that response"

BOLI initiates investigation

BOLI investigates alleged civil rights violations via a process that was explained by its strategic communications director, Jenny Smith. The agency will first review the complaint to determine if it was filed within the statute of limitations and is within BOLI's jurisdiction. Then the agency will draft a formal charge to be signed by the complainant, notify the respondent and allow the respondent to respond with relevant information. BOLI investigators will then conduct a review of the facts and evidence, including interviewing the parties to the complaint as well as witnesses, to determine if a violation exists. Once the investigation is complete, BOLI will either dismiss the complaint because the investigator found no substantial evidence of a violation or advance the case for possible administrative adjudication, the meting of penalties and granting of damages.

BOLI "can levy (or) assess monetary penalties and/or compensatory damages in cases where a violation is found to have occurred," Smith said.

Regardless of the agency's findings, Smith added, Jeffries can file a lawsuit in civil court and to that end the agency issues a "Right to Sue" letter, which would allow her to pursue legal action through a private attorney.

Smith said that because Jeffries' case is currently being examined by BOLI, she can't comment on it due to state statutes. That will only change, she added, once the agency has resolved the complaint or issued a final order.

Alleging a pattern of abuse

Jeffries, identified in the BOLI document as "complainant," claims that beginning in December 2014, when she was transferred to the city's engineering division, Hoffman "began subjecting complainant to unwelcome behaviors including Hoffman's love of romantic books, some of which bordered into pornographic-like materials such as `Fifty Shades of Grey.' Hoffman told complainant at one point that (she) had 'much worse' material in her library … Complainant consistently rebuffed Hoffman's efforts to draw her into conversations about these books. Nonetheless, Hoffman would leave copies of such books on complainant's desk."

Jeffries further claims she approached Hoffman's superior, Jay Harris, about Hoffman's behavior, but to no avail.

"Harris responded that complainant should set boundaries for Hoffman and suggest complainant simply go home, have a couple of drinks and forget about it," Jeffries alleged.

Jeffries' complaints grew more serious the longer she was employed in the engineering department. Hoffman, she said, continued to "badger her" about her taste in literature, invited Jeffries to book readings, a book-lover's convention in Las Vegas and a book-reading campout in Washington where she invited her to share Hoffman's RV. Eventually, she was subjected to photographs of "naked men, covered strategically, on Facebook and other Internet sites.

"(Jeffries) became nervous that she would suffer repercussions at work if she did not show interest in the books Hoffman was pushing on her," the complaint states.

Other employees in the engineering department, Jeffries says in the complaint, acknowledged Hoffman's behavior, remarking that she would stand unnecessarily close to Jeffries desk, stare at Jeffries for lengthy periods of time, stand in her doorway and watch Jeffries work and "eye her up and down and occasionally make comments about complainant's appearance."

Hoffman's behavior allegedly descended into hostility at one point as Jeffries split her time with the city's IT department.

"Hoffman would comment to complainant that Hoffman didn't have access to IT," the complaint states. "Complainant explained the secure nature of IT, they support the police and have access to the (Criminal Justice Information System), and Hoffman would roll her eyes and walk away in a huff."

Jeffries said she again approached Harris about Hoffman's behavior in August 2015. "Harris did nothing to address these behaviors, which continued to occur and escalate," she said.

Jeffries was reluctant to approach the city's human resources department, she said, because the interim director was friends with Hoffman. When the new HR director, Anna Lee, was hired Jeffries approached her about Hoffman's behavior and Lee reportedly told her she had a "tool box" of information she would distribute to all department heads to deal with just this kind of harassment. The bad behavior continued unabated, she claims, although Lee led a mandatory harassment training for the engineering and IT departments more than two years later.

Jeffries further claims that Hoffman implied she would give her a bad employee evaluation after finding out that Jeffries was considering transferring to a full-time position in the IT department.

"If I remember correctly your evaluation is due soon," Jeffries recalls Hoffman saying. "I should probably get on that.

"Complainant became concerned Hoffman would hinge the evaluation on complainant's choice between IT and engineering," the complaint alleges.

Over the next several years, Jeffries alleges, Hoffman's behavior continued, despite Jeffries reporting it to Harris, Lee and Hannan, the former city manager.

In December 2018, the complaint alleges, Lee scheduled a meeting with Jeffries to discuss her annual evaluation and asked that Hoffman sit in as a mediator.

"On Dec. 17, 2018, complainant emailed Lee to inform her complainant was not comfortable having Hoffman in any meeting to discuss the issues complainant was having with HR, Lee, Hoffman and the City," the complaint reads.

The meeting was cancelled and shortly after Jeffries received an email from Lee that cc'd Stone and Hannan, suggesting if she was uncomfortable bringing issues to human resources or Lee, she could address them with Stone and Hannan.

Hoffman's behavior questioned

Soon after that encounter, Jeffries claims, Hoffman began "exhibiting paranoid behaviors" that included her asking excessive questions about her time off, following her around, interjecting herself into conversations with co-workers and staring at her repeatedly.

The complaint alleges that in January of this year Hannan ordered Harris to deal with the issues between Jeffries and Hoffman, but that Harris balked because he was not Jeffries' full-time supervisor. Jeffries agreed and opined that it was Hannan's responsibility to deal with the matter.

Jeffries decided to take her complaints elsewhere.

"Because there had been a multi-year-long pattern of behavior which the city officials seemed incapable of remedying, complainant requested a meeting with (newly-elected Mayor Rick Rogers)," the complaint reads. On April 11, 2019, complainant met the mayor, who advised her to draft a letter to the city council bringing the matter to their attention. Complainant did so, detailing the harassment and retaliation which had been since 2015."

That action, Jeffries alleges, fostered a meeting between Hannan, Harris and Lee, the subject of which was titled "Personnel Issue Engineering."

Jeffries' counsel, Thennell, filed a tort notice the following day with the city, "alleging the city had failed to take appropriate remedial actions to protect complainant from unwanted sexual advances and subsequently retaliated against her when she complained of a hostile work environment."

Stone soon alerted the city's department heads, Hannan, the city council and the engineering division of the tort notice.

A day later, with Harris and Lee's guidance, the complaint alleges that Jeffries was temporarily reassigned to IT on a full-time basis, removing her from contact with Hoffman.

City orders investigation

Soon after the city hired the Portland law firm of Berry Elsner & Hammond to investigate the claims in the tort notice. Investigators from the law firm completed their investigation in July and produced an executive summary.

"Using a preponderance of the evidence standard, (the investigators) concluded Hoffman's 'displays social behaviors that are unusual and can generally cause those around her to feel comfortable."

In the complaint, Thennell said the conclusion of the investigation "display a shocking amount of understatement. The general tenor of the summary can most easily be explained by the fact that the city had an interest in as soft a conclusion as possible."

The investigation determined that the books Hoffman brought to the office were not sexually erotic, but also found that Hoffman did subject Jeffries to inappropriate and sexually explicit photos and videos at work, pressured Jeffries to attend event outside of work, touched her inappropriately and "intentionally exposed and accentuated her cleavage in front of complainant."

The investigation also found that once Jeffries reported the alleged abuse, Harris took appropriate action by speaking to Clyne and Stone about how to approach the issue, increased his "observation hours" in the engineering department, searched Hoffman's desk for inappropriate books, talked to Jeffries about "ways she could handle events as they occur," and followed up with Jeffries.

"These actions are facially insufficient, did not actually curb any behaviors by Jeffries and generally seemed designed to protect the city as opposed to protecting the complainant," Thennell wrote in the complaint.

The investigation determined that Hannan didn't violate any city policies because Jeffries didn't directly report her complaints to him. Lee was also held innocent in the investigation because "investigators did not find Lee violated any policies because complainant did not share 'the full extent of Hoffman's behaviors to Lee.'"

Thennell countered that Jeffries met with Lee for two hours in 2018 to discuss Hoffman's behavior, but to no avail. He added that despite ample evidence that Hoffman violated city policies on sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment, "there has been little to no repercussions for Hoffman. Complainant on the other hand has been exposed to sustained retaliation."

Over the past six months, Jeffries alleges, the city continued to mishandle her case, that she was rebuffed in her efforts to address the issues by Harris, Clyne and Hannan, that she was retaliated against by Stone and that a mediator was retained by the city to help in her transition back into the engineering department who insisted that Jeffries and Hoffman "meet together to attempt to mediate their differences."

Jeffries and Thennell say in the complaint that, ultimately, the city will not own up to its failures.

"Complainant was left in this nightmarish scenario for nearly four years before even a single action was taken," the complaint says. "The head of HR, the city manager, the city attorney and the head of public works were all aware of the complaints for anywhere from four years to one year and no meaningful action was taken until complainant sent a tort claim to the city.

"Even once the city did initiate an investigation it became clear the real goal was not to address the harassment and discrimination, or to impose consequences for the behavior of the perpetrator. The real motivation was clearly to cover up Harris, Lee, Hannan and Stone's failures to attempt, clumsily, to insulate the city from potential liability."

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