Justia Oregon Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Civil Rights
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Plaintiff Gene Summerfield, worked for defendant Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), in its warehouse. In his complaint plaintiff alleged that he and other African-Americans had been subjected to racial discrimination and racial harassment at the warehouse. Plaintiff also alleged that he had repeatedly told defendant about the discrimination and harassment, but defendant had failed to take effective corrective action. Plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim for acute stress. The claim was accepted, and plaintiff received treatment. Plaintiff’s treatment provider eventually released plaintiff to return to work, and plaintiff requested reemployment. The jury rejected plaintiff’s first claim; on the verdict form, it answered the questions finding that defendant had not “intentionally discriminate[d] against plaintiff because of his race” and had not “subject[ed] plaintiff to a racially hostile work environment by his co-workers.” The jury also rejected plaintiff’s retaliation claim, finding that defendant had not “retaliate[d] against [plaintiff] for opposing or reporting racial dis- crimination or racial harassment.” But the jury accepted plaintiff’s whistleblowing claim, finding that defendant had “take[n] adverse enforcement [sic] action against plaintiff because he in good faith reported information that he believed was a violation of a law, rule or other regulation.” Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Oregon Supreme Court determined the trial court did not err in granting defendant a directed verdict on plaintiff’s reemployment claim; plaintiff bore the burden of proving that defendant had available and suitable employment for him and plaintiff conceded that he had not done so. The Supreme Court also concluded that, although the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the meaning of “adverse employment action” for the purposes of plaintiff’s retaliation claim, the error was harmless because there was no dispute that the actions plaintiff relied on to support his retaliation claim were adverse employment actions and the jury actually found that defendant had committed an adverse employment action. Finally, the Supreme Court concluded that plaintiff has not established that, under the circumstances of this case, the trial court abused its discretion in declining to award plaintiff equitable relief. View "Summerfield v. OLCC" on Justia Law

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In this case, the Oregon Supreme Court was asked to decide the scope of the state civil rights laws and antiretaliation provision in ORS 659A.030(1)(f). The question before the Court was whether the retaliation prohibited by the statute included includes disparaging statements made by defendant, plaintiff’s former supervisor, to an admissions officer at plaintiff’s MBA program. Defendant offered two reasons why it would not be: (1) he was not a “person;” and (2) his statements to the admissions officer did not “otherwise discriminate against” plaintiff, within the meaning of those terms as used in the statute. The Supreme Court disagree with both. “Person,” the Court determined, included all “individuals,” and “otherwise discriminate against” was a broad term that encompasses defendant’s conduct. The Court therefore affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, which ruled in plaintiff’s favor and remanded this case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "McLaughlin v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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After being terminated by defendant Nike, Inc., plaintiff Douglas Ossanna sued his former employer. Plaintiff alleged, among other things, that Nike had unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his safety complaints and for whistleblowing. Based on his theory that his supervisors held a retaliatory bias against him, plaintiff requested a “cat’s paw” jury instruction informing the jury that, in considering his claims, it could impute a subordinate supervisor’s biased retaliatory motive to Nike’s formal decision-maker, an upper manager with firing authority, if the biased subordinate supervisor influenced, affected, or was involved in the decision to fire plaintiff. The trial court declined to give the instruction, and the jury returned a verdict for Nike. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court’s refusal to give the requested “cat’s paw” instruction was an instructional error that prejudiced plaintiff. The Oregon Supreme Court held the “cat’s paw” doctrine was a viable theory in Oregon. For an employer to be liable, however, a plaintiff relying on the imputed-bias theory also must establish a causal connection between the supervisor’s bias and the adverse employment action; the causation requirement for the claim at issue controls the degree of causation required to impose liability. The Court also concluded the trial court erred in declining to give plaintiff’s “cat’s paw” jury instruction, because the instruction was a correct and applicable statement of the law, and that the instructional error prejudiced plaintiff. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, reversed the trial court as to plaintiff’s retaliation claims, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Ossanna v. Nike, Inc." on Justia Law

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Sixteen years after he had been sexually abused by an Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) employee, plaintiff filed suit; the issue on review was plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. section 1983 claim against defendant Gary Lawhead, former superintendent of the OYA facility where the abuse had occurred. Plaintiff alleged defendant had violated his federal constitutional rights through deliberate indifference to the risk that the OYA employee would sexually abuse youths housed at the facility. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s section 1983 claim on the basis that the claim accrued at the time of the abuse in 1998 and, consequently, was untimely. The Court of Appeals reversed, relying on T. R. v. Boy Scouts of America, 181 P3d 758, cert den, 555 US 825 (2008). The Oregon Supreme Court allowed defendant’s petition for review to address when plaintiff’s cause of action under section 1983 accrued. Applying federal law, the Court held that an action under section 1983 accrues when a plaintiff knows or reasonably should know of the injury and the defendant’s role in causing the injury. Therefore, the trial court erred by dismissing plaintiff’s claim in reliance on the principle that a section 1983 claim accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury alone, which, in this case, it determined was necessarily when the abuse occurred. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, reversed the trial court's judgment, and remanded the case to the trial court to reconsider its summary judgment decision under the correct accrual standard. View "J. M. v. Oregon Youth Authority" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs are brothers, aged eight and twelve, were crossing a street in a crosswalk with the walk signal with their seven-year-old younger brother. Defendant negligently drove his pickup truck through the crosswalk, running over the youngest boy and narrowly missing the other two. The brother who was struck died at the scene. The two surviving brothers witnessed their brother’s death and experienced serious emotional injuries as a result. This case tasked the Oregon Supreme Court to consider the circumstances, if any, under which damages could be recovered by a bystander who suffers serious emotional distress as a result of observing the negligent physical injury of another person. The trial court dismissed the action and the Court of Appeals affirmed, both relying on the “impact rule,” which allows a plaintiff to seek damages for negligently caused emotional distress only if the plaintiff can show some physical impact to himself or herself, thus precluding the claims brought by plaintiffs in this case. The Supreme Court concluded that plaintiffs should be able to pursue their claims notwithstanding the fact that they did not themselves suffer physical injury. The Court therefore reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and the judgment of the circuit court, and remanded the case to the trial court. View "Philibert v. Kluser" on Justia Law

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In 2009, plaintiff American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, Inc. (ACLU), made a request under the Oregon Public Records law to inspect and copy certain documents of the Civilian Review Board of the City of Eugene pertaining to city police officers' use of a Taser against "Mr." Van Ornum. The request was ultimately denied, and the ACLU sued for release of the documents under ORS 192.420 (1). The City of Eugene cited, as grounds for its denial the records request, a conditional exemption in the statute. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the exemption did not apply when “the public interest requires disclosure of the information. . . .[W]hen that exemption applies, a trial court must determine, as a matter of both law and fact, the nature and significance of two competing interests - the public’s interest in disclosure and the public body’s interest in confidentiality. Then, the court must balance those competing interests and determine, as a matter of law, which interest predominates." In this case, after considering the nature and significance of the competing interests, the Oregon Supreme Court concluded that the public interest in disclosure of the requested records predominates, and the trial court erred in declining to order their disclosure. View "American Civil Liberties Union v. City of Eugene" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Chester Westfall brought a civil action against the State claiming that the Department of Corrections had kept him in prison longer than his lawful term of incarceration. Specifically, he alleged that the department had unlawfully extended his prison term by having a sentence run consecutively to another sentence imposed the same day, rather than running consecutive to a sentence that had been imposed previously. The State moved for summary judgment, asserting that it was entitled to discretionary immunity because the department's written policies required its employees to treat the sentence as consecutive to other sentences imposed the same day. The trial court agreed and granted the State's motion. The Court of Appeals reversed on appeal, concluding that any discretionary immunity that applied to the department's decision to adopt the written policies did not also apply to those employees who carried out the policies. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that the Court of Appeals erred in its analysis, and the Court rejected plaintiff's alternative argument that the actions of the department and its employees were not the kind protected by discretionary immunity. The case was remanded back to the Court of Appeals, however, for consideration of plaintiff's other arguments that the Court of Appeals did not address. View "Westfall v. Oregon" on Justia Law

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This case concerned an employment discrimination dispute between Portland State University (PSU) and Portland State University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (the Association). Those entities entered into a collective bargaining agreement that included a dispute resolution process for alleged violations of the agreement. That dispute resolution process included a "Resort to Other Procedures" (ROP) provision that permitted PSU to decline or discontinue a grievance proceeding if an Association member brought a claim regarding the same matter in an agency or court outside of PSU. PSU invoked that provision to halt a grievance proceeding after an Association member filed discrimination complaints with two outside agencies. The Association subsequently filed a complaint with the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB), alleging in part that PSU had engaged in an unfair labor practice by discontinuing the contractual grievance proceeding. ERB concluded that PSU's invocation of the ROP clause constituted unlawful discrimination. It therefore declined to enforce the ROP clause and ordered PSU to submit to the grievance process. On PSU's appeal, the Court of Appeals determined that ERB erred by applying the wrong legal standard in ordering PSU to submit to the grievance process, and it therefore reversed and remanded the case for ERB's reconsideration. The Association sought review of that decision. Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals's decision, concluding that ERB correctly held that the ROP clause at issue in this case imposed a form of employer retaliation for protected conduct that reasonably would impede or deter an employee from pursuing his or her statutory rights. "The resulting harm is neither theoretical nor trivial, but qualifies as a substantive difference in treatment. The ROP provision is therefore facially discriminatory . . . Accordingly, ERB properly declined to enforce that illegal contract provision. " View "Portland St. Univ. Ass'n of Univ. Professors v. Portland St. Univ." on Justia Law

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The Sheriffs of Jackson and Washington Counties withheld concealed handgun licenses from persons who met all of the statutory conditions for the issuance of such licenses, but admitted to being regular users of medical marijuana. When the sheriffsâ actions were challenged in court, the sheriffs responded that the stateâs handgun licensing scheme does not take medical marijuana use into consideration. The reason why the sheriffs denied the handgun licenses was because the state law is preempted by the federal prohibition on the possession of firearms by persons who are âunlawful users of controlled substances.â Both the trial and appellate courts rejected the preemption argument, and held that the concealed handgun licenses were wrongfully withheld. The sheriffs appealed. The Supreme Court held that the Federal Gun Control Act did not preempt the stateâs concealed handgun licensing statute, and accordingly, the Court ordered the sheriffs issue or renew the requested licenses.