Multnomah County jury finds Portland Public Schools must pay $1 million in racial discrimination suit
A Multnomah County jury found Thursday that Portland Public Schools allowed a racially hostile work environment in its maintenance department and awarded two employees $500,000 each.
Charles Morgan and Jason Williams, two black longtime employees of Portland Public Schools' maintenance department, alleged in their suit that PPS allowed the hostility by failing to address the repeated racial insults and taunts Morgan and Williams suffered at the hands of white coworkers and supervisors over a period of years.
Testimony in the nearly two-week trial showed that officials in Portland Public Schools conducted investigations into allegations by Morgan and Williams that, among other things, they were targets of the N-word. Employees in the district's human resources department found evidence for some of the claims but rejected the idea that they had been victims of racial discrimination.
Attorneys for Morgan and Williams argued that PPS's inadequate response to a pattern of discriminatory behavior in the maintenance department actually emboldened the men's coworkers and supervisors to discriminate against them and retaliate.
Attorneys for Portland Public Schools defended the district's actions, arguing that it's working hard to address institutional racism but that progress is naturally slow.
Perhaps nothing illustrated the two side's divide better than the dispute over a hanging rope found in a maintenance work room.
An attorney for PPS from Miller Nash Graham and Dunn, Michelle Smigel, had called the object "a rope with a loop" that was meant to hold cords from power tools, according to a white worker's testimony. She argued in a pre-trial motion against allowing testimony on the rope, saying it would be "highly inflammatory" and "unduly prejudicial."
Multnomah County Circuit Judge Henry Kantor allowed the testimony, which meant that attorneys for Morgan and William, Diane Sykes and Ashlee Albies, could argue that the men perceived the rope to be a noose, as did another black worker who testified for them. "It was a signal," said the worker, Eddie Miller, during a pre-trial motion. "There was no other purpose for it to be there. It was a scare tactic."
Interim Superintendent Bob McKean wrote in a statement that PPS respects the decision of the jury. "The district takes allegations of discrimination seriously," he wrote. "We strive to create a respectful work environment, one that is free of discrimination. We will continue to work with our communities and employees on issues surrounding diversity and inclusion."
The workers' lawsuit, filed in 2016, also originally named the worker's union, the United Association Local Union 290 representing plumbers and steamfitters. The union, however, settled with the workers in March.
The last high-profile jury case against PPS came in 2011, when a special education administrator, Stacey Sibley, brought a whistleblower suit against PPS. A Multnomah County jury sided with the district in that dispute.
Jurors in this case told the Portland Tribune after entering the verdict that PPS's response to the workers' repeated complaints was sluggish and ineffective.
"I felt strongly that it was unjust," said juror Jesse Parkerton. "And it had gone on way too long and not been properly addressed."
Pamela Mullins, another juror, said she was unpersuaded by PPS's attempts to explain away the dangling rope. "I found it extremely offensive," she said of the noose. "I had to ask myself, 'Is it really 2017?'"
For their part, Morgan and Williams said they plan to return to work at PPS on Monday.
Other black workers who've experienced what they have at PPS have been too scared of retaliation to come forward, said Williams.
"I think it will be better for the other members now," said Morgan. "I think change is going to happen."