City, staff brunt of federal lawsuit
The city of Newberg received an unwelcome early Christmas gift last week when the Portland attorney representing four city staff members filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming his client's civil rights were violated.
The lawsuit was filed by attorney Daniel Thenell on behalf of longtime IT director David Brooks. It names the city itself, as well as interim city manager David Clyne, city attorney Truman Stone, human resource director Anna Lee, former city manager Joe Hannan, the city's insurance carrier CityCounty Insurance and one of the insurance company's attorneys, Tamara Jones. The lawsuit targets the defendants in both their official and individual capacities.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, claims Brooks' 1st and 14th Amendment rights were violated, that the city defamed him, retaliated against him as a whistleblower and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. The lawsuit demands a jury trial and seeks a minimum of $1 million in damages "or an amount to be proven at trial" on multiple accounts.
The lawsuit follows a complaint filed in late October by Thenell with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries on behalf of Brittney Jeffries, who is now employed in Brooks' department but for several years split time between that department and the city's engineering division. She has claimed she was sexually harassed by a superior in the engineering division, Kaaren Hoffman, over the course of several years and her pleas for help from various city administrators fell on deaf airs.
Brooks' lawsuit is also expected to be soon followed by similar legal actions from two of his other clients – Newberg-Dundee Police Chief Brian Casey and NDPD Capt. Jeff Kosmicki. Brooks has been a reserve officer in the NDPD for 16 years.
Brooks' allegations against the various city leaders range back to 2015 when newly named city manager Jacque Betz arrived on the scene and quickly raised allegations against Casey that were later found to be unfounded. Betz was put on administrative leave and eventually forced from office by the City Council. Brooks alleges that Stone kept records concerning Betz's allegations against Casey from him and the city council and threatened retaliation against Brooks.
Attempts to contact Stone, as well as all the others named in the lawsuit except for Clyne, for comment were unsuccessful as of press time Friday morning.
The federal lawsuit also touches on a jury's recent verdict against the city in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by Gregg Patton, an African-American man who was passed over for a job as an assistant in Lee's human resources department. The lawsuit alleges that Lee altered city documents to favor the woman eventually hired for the position, a friend of hers who she had worked with in Sherwood. The lawsuit further alleges Stone indirectly ordered Brooks to destroy electronic documents that Patton's attorney had requested be preserved as part of his client's case against the city.
Brooks, the lawsuit alleges, went to several city council members to raise alarm, an action he insists "infuriated" Hannan, causing the city manager to claim he was violating the chain of command and causing Hannan to order him to bring concerns to him before approaching the council.
The lawsuit spends considerable time talking about an alleged burglary of a filing cabinet in Lee's office, which Lee didn't report to police immediately but prompted an investigation by the NDPD where Lee suggested that Casey may have been behind the break-in in order to help Patton. The case was initially forwarded to the county district attorney's office, then undertaken by an investigator from the Oregon State Police after the Oregon Department of Justice declined Brooks' and Kosmicki's request to investigate Lee for public misconduct, initiating a false report, altering public records and attempting to frame Casey. Kosmicki also told the OSP investigator that Stone and Lee may have conspired to "commit these crimes."
The lawsuit alleges that Stone's assistant, Robin Steele, advised Lee that Brooks had reported the burglary to the police, which "exposed plaintiff to retaliatory harassment by Lee" and that Stone had directed Steele to reveal Brook's part in the investigation.
The lawsuit further claims that Lee opened an investigation into Brooks' department, telling Hannan that there were problems. Hannan took over the investigation, Brooks claims, and found no problems, prompting Brooks to complain to Hannan that Lee was harassing and retaliating against him.
Claims for relief
In the federal lawsuit's first claim for relief Thenell alleges that actions by Hannan, Stone, Lee, Clyne, Jones and CIS violated Brooks' constitutional right to free speech. It seeks damages of at least $1 million, plus attorney fees.
The second count of the first claim for relief alleges that the city's policies, practices or customs also robbed Brooks of his free speech rights. It also seeks a minimum $1 million judgement and attorney fees.
The second claim for relief alleges that Brooks' 14th Amendment right to due process was violated by all of the defendants because an investigation by Jones into some of the allegations was "fundamentally unfair in that it was conducted with a preconceived outcome in mind and sought to find evidence to fit the city and individual defendants' theories regarding the plaintiff and other subjects."
The second count of the second claim for relief alleges that Brooks' right to equal protection under the law was violated as his conduct in protected activities were treated differently than others in city government. The defendants' acts, the lawsuit alleges, makes Brooks eligible for punitive, compensatory and non-economic damages that would be determined at trial, as well as attorney fees.
The third, fourth and fifth claims for relief allege that Hannan violated Brooks' state whistleblowing rights when he threatened him for disclosing alleged misconduct by the defendants, CIS and its employees to the council.
It also claims that Steele disclosed to Lee that it was Brooks that told the police that Lee hadn't reported the burglary and that she may have modified files in the Patton case. It says that Brooks suffered mental and emotional distress, economic damages and loss of future income, but doesn't seek a specific judgement.
The sixth claim for relief claims the defendants intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Brooks and that he is entitled to economic and non-economic damages to be determined at trial.
The seventh claim for relief claims Brooks was defamed by Lee in connection with the burglary, the Patton case and when the city released Jones' findings in November. It also seeks economic damages to be determined at trial.
The final claim for relief says the city is guilty of negligence in hiring Lee after she made similar "unfounded" allegations of harassment while employed by the city of Sherwood. That claim seeks economic damages similar to the others.
Lawsuit all about the money?
Ultimately, Clyne said, Brooks' lawsuit is about the money and an ambitious attorney seeking to make a name for himself while earning a handsome paycheck.
"I think it's unfortunate that we live in an age where attorneys like Mr. Thenell, who cost one of his clients in excess of $1,000,000 in legal fees alone … convince dedicated public servants to litigate their differences with their supervisors and peers rather than resolve them through other professional means," Clyne said. "Mr. Thenell is financially punishing the taxpaying citizens of Newberg with his pursuit of personal enrichment."
Thenell argued that the lawsuit is about the city's inaction and unfairness to a longtime employee.
"I would like to see the city quickly make this right for my client," he said. "I believe the City Council has been manipulated by certain employees and have not been provided full disclosure of the events underlying this investigation or the Patton lawsuit.
"City administrators work for the people and the City Council, not the other way around. The people of Newberg and the council deserve the truth and deserve full accountability. This lawsuit aims to establish the truth and bring accountability onto those responsible."
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