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Class-Action Lawsuit Accuses Oregon Health & Science University Of Discriminatory Discipline

Suit on behalf of more than 1,100 current and former OHSU employees seeks policy changes, back pay.
Oregon Health & Science University Center for Health and Healing Building 2 in the South Waterfront neighborhood, July 2020. | SHUTTERSTOCK
December 14, 2021

Still reeling from a scathing report finding inconsistent discipline and a lack of inclusivity, Oregon Health & Science University now faces a class-action lawsuit accusing it of a culture of racial hostility and discrimination.

On Tuesday, Dec. 14, two employees on behalf of at least 1,100 current and former employees, saying OHSU had disproportionately disciplined employees of color.

The suit, filed by Gloria Richards and Depreesha Smith, says that “OHSU undervalued and overdisciplined Plaintiffs and other Black employees and employees of color,” and demands that the institution adopt policies to ensure federal anti-discrimination laws are followed.

OHSU is one of the largest employers in the state, operating schools for medicine, nursing and other health professions in Portland as well as the OHSU teaching hospital and OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

“OHSU’s centralized discipline policies and practices constitute a system-wide pattern or practice of discrimination against employees of color,” the suit contends, adding that a lack of training and inconsistent standards “allows racial bias to infect its discipline procedures and outcomes.”

As of 2020, people who identify as racial minorities made up about 24% of OHSU’s employees, but constituted nearly 33% of OHSU’s involuntary terminations in 2019 and 31% in 2020, according to the suit It was filed by two Portland law firms, Albies & Stark and the Sugerman Law Office.

The suit also contends that since Sept. 23, 2019, employees of color fired by OHSU number between 100 and 200 people, while more than 1,000 employees of color were disciplined.

The suit’s filing comes after a period that OHSU officials have characterized as deep soul-searching to improve the institution’s practices and rid its workplaces of racism, gender bias and sexual harassment. On its website, OHSU published findings from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of disproportionate hiring and terminations, calling the numbers “painful but important … This is who we are and who we’ve been. We can and will do better.”

Asked about the suit, a spokesperson emailed a response: “In light of pending litigation, we cannot comment on the particulars of this case; however, we want to emphasize that OHSU is fully committed to providing a workplace free of discrimination and harassment, and we are invested in ensuring that our expectations for what culture, opportunity, diversity, equity, belonging, inclusion and anti-racism look like at OHSU and academic health centers worldwide.”

Suit Follows Scathing Report

The suit comes on the heels of a Dec. 9 report issued by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his law partner, Nancy Kestenbaum, commissioned by OHSU. It found the university had no real plan to promote diversity, equity and inclusion and had done little to achieve those goals, while applying discipline inconsistently. It also found university leadership “routinely” disregarded recommendations made by its human resources department.

The university issued “laudatory” statements about high-profile individuals who’d left following allegations of misconduct, the report also said. It questioned the university’s response to at least four incidents of nooses displayed on campus in the last five years, quoting criticisms that the university had done nothing meaningful to address them.

OHSU issued a public apology following the report’s release. “We are sorry for anyone who has experienced inequitable treatment, discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation or retaliation while working or learning at OHSU,” wrote OHSU President Danny Jacobs and OHSU Board Chair Wayne Monfries.

They vowed to make change to “overcome the past and change the future so that OHSU can become a place where everyone can thrive.”

Lawsuit Details Two Employees’ Experiences

The lawsuit discusses the experiences of Richards and Smith, the two named plaintiffs.

Richards’ account was detailed in an Aug. 26 article in The Lund Report, which also outlined research conducted by AFSCME staff representative, Valyria Lewis, who brought Richards’ case to management.

Richards, a member of AFSCME Council No. 75 and Local 328, started working for OHSU in 1999. A clerical worker, she answered calls, collected patient information and scheduled patients for doctors, among other things.

For more than two decades, she didn’t have a blemish on her record, Lewis told the Lund Report. But last year Richards was fired along with another Black employee. Reportedly, the coworker had asked Richards to serve as a monitor so he could take an exam remotely for Portland Community College, Richards agreed, but then backed out when he asked her to lie and say she was a professor, Richards said. Richards also discovered that he had been collecting doctors’ signatures for an unknown reason, she said. She told her supervisor about the situation, but OHSU fired them both last year.

On Sept. 23, the arbitrator found the firing was wrong, and ordered her reinstated with back pay, according to the lawsuit. Since Oct. 7, she has again worked at OHSU.

The other plaintiff, Smith, is a medical assistant who went to work for OHSU in 2018.

In January 2020, Smith allegedly received a verbal warning for attendance, blocking her from receiving a bonus and transferring to a different job at OHSU where she would have earned a higher hourly rate, according to the lawsuit. The suit contends that “some of Smith’s white counterparts had similar attendance records, but did not receive verbal warnings.”

On June 23, 2020, Smith received a written warning for “3.5” attendance violations, according to the lawsuit. OHSU cited tardiness and absences that she attributed to school closures and related childcare issues — reasons protected by an agreement between OHSU and AFSCME, according to the suit, which added that “ Smith’s white co-worker had four ‘occurrences’ during a similar 90-day time period, yet OHSU did not discipline her.”

The suit also contends that two years ago, OHSU terminated a Hispanic employee for “alleged commission of a hostile act.” AFSCME successfully challenged the firing, citing “unrebutted evidence” that at least six coworkers had committed worse violations than the Hispanic employee, with only a warning, the suit said.

In a prepared statement, Richards said, “I’m bringing this suit because I want OHSU to change. I’ve worked for OHSU for 23 years and have seen my fair share of discrimination at OHSU. I’ve been targeted, picked on, and passed over for opportunities I know I was qualified for. I’ve also seen other minorities picked on and passed over as well. People of color and minority workers at OHSU have been sounding the alarm for years. OHSU needs to understand that authorities in the office are not born to discriminate; they are taught this behavior.  In the future to prevent discrimination, OHSU should educate all upper management and staff to respect our differences, respond to our complaints appropriately, and deal with our complaints of discrimination promptly and confidentially. And lastly, OHSU must remember that humans forgot a lot of things but they will never forget how it — as an independent public corporation — made us feel.”

You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] and find him on Twitter at @NickBudnick.