Oregon government has few people of color in executive-level jobs, so it was notable when the state’s labor bureau hired Carol Johnson, who is African American, to lead its civil rights division in July 2019.
As an experienced civil rights lawyer who previously led Arkansas’ fair housing commission, Johnson arrived with clear bona fides for her Oregon job. Yet Johnson says she quickly encountered resistance from subordinates including the white male civil rights managers who worked for her. They denigrated her knowledge and experience and refused to follow her directives, she says in court filings.
When Johnson relayed her concerns about the behavior to Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and Deputy Labor Commissioner Duke Shepard in fall 2019, they told Johnson that most Black professionals only last a few years in Oregon, according to a lawsuit Johnson filed April 30 in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
In a response to the lawsuit filed Friday, lawyers for the bureau denied that Hoyle and Shepard made that statement to Johnson and denied that Johnson’s subordinates in the civil rights division denigrated her or refused to follow her directions. Hoyle also released a statement, noting she hired a “neutral third-party investigator” with the law firm Stoel Rives in August to investigate how Johnson was treated.
“We are awaiting the conclusion and report,” Hoyle said. “I cannot comment on any specifics in this matter due to the ongoing investigation and legal proceedings, other than to say that my office fully supports a thorough and transparent process to get to the root of these important issues.”
A spokesperson for the bureau, Anne Marie Levis, said of Hoyle and Shepard’s alleged comments to Johnson, “It’s Ms. Johnson’s version of the events. This is why we’re looking forward to the results of the independent and transparent investigation.”
Over the 10 months after Johnson first reported workplace concerns to her bosses, Hoyle and Shepard failed to back her up, she alleges, as she worked to improve the bureau’s handling of Oregon workers’ complaints about discrimination. They “gave Johnson no authority to admonish or discipline staff for work deficiencies or insubordination, undermining (Johnson’s) credibility and leaving her vulnerable to further discriminatory targeting and harassment,” according to the lawsuit.
It marks the second time in five years that a top African American civil rights lawyer at an Oregon government agency has alleged racial discrimination. Erious Johnson, the state Department of Justice’s lead civil rights lawyer, was tracked by an investigator within his own agency using a surveillance tool to monitor people who posted the Black Lives Matter hashtag on social media and received a $205,000 settlement after accusing the agency of racism.
After labor bureau employees complained to Shepard that Johnson changed case processing protocols, Shepard told Johnson that he could fire her at any time, according to the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the bureau deny these claims as well, according to court filings.
Johnson’s lawsuit claims that her civil rights were violated due to race-based discrimination by the very state employees who were tasked with protecting all Oregon workers’ civil rights.
In early 2020, the agency’s work in that area was called into question amid scrutiny of its mishandling of a workplace racial discrimination complaint by Michael Fesser, a Black employee of a Portland auto towing company who was arrested after he complained about racial discrimination at work. Some of Fesser’s coworkers called him racial epithets and one asked how he liked a Confederate flag affixed to that worker’s pickup, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. In February 2017, West Linn police arrested Fesser at the request of Fesser’s boss, who was a fishing buddy of then-West Linn Police Chief Terry Timeus.
Fesser filed a discrimination claim with the Bureau of Labor and Industries’ civil rights division in May 2017, but records obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive revealed that a senior investigator dismissed Fesser’s case after only a cursory examination. Johnson said in a February 2020 television interview that she was “devastated” to learn of the bureau’s failure to help Fesser. “We want to make sure something like this never happens again,” Johnson told KATU.
The city of West Linn ultimately settled with Fesser over his wrongful arrest. And in February 2020, one day before Johnson critiqued the agency’s work, Hoyle said her agency failed Fesser and “we will be making changes to our work.”
Hoyle tweeted that Fesser’s case was “one of many reasons I hired a nationally respected civil rights attorney, (Carol Johnson), to lead this agency’s Civil Rights division. She’s already made lots of changes and has been making our work better since she started in 2019.”
Johnson’s lawsuit details her experiences with what she says was racist treatment and actions by her subordinates at the agency.
In early November 2019, Johnson sponsored a “comprehensive civil rights investigation training” that included the concept of implicit bias, which refers to assumptions people make about other people, often without realizing they are doing so. “Several Caucasian staff were antagonistic and disrespectful to a highly experienced African American presenter,” according to Johnson’s lawsuit. Johnson reported her concerns about the incident to agency leaders “but no action was taken to address her concerns about racial micro aggressions.”
After Johnson pledged in the February 2020 TV interview about Fesser’s case to review the bureau’s handling of civil rights cases, investigators in the division were openly antagonistic toward her and “reported her to BOLI management in an effort to negatively affect her employment,” according to Johnson’s lawsuit.
In May 2020, Johnson sent Hoyle and Shepard a memorandum detailing her concerns that subordinates were subjecting her to racial discrimination and requesting an immediate investigation. She also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Johnson learned in June 2020 that a bureau investigator filed a “bully boss” complaint about her with SEIU 503, according to the lawsuit. Ben Morris, communications director for the union, confirmed the union received two complaints about Johnson around that time but said staff and members decided not to pursue any action because the complaints did not identify management violations of the union’s contract or unfair labor practices.
On June 25, 2020, Johnson received a package of feces mailed anonymously to her home. The next day, civil rights division employees carried out an employee survey “in another effort to further discredit Ms. Johnson’s authority and negatively affect her employment,” according to the lawsuit.
Johnson informed bureau leaders on July 3 that she would resign from the job “due to ongoing, severe, pervasive and unremitting discriminatory work conditions,” her lawyer wrote.
Nearly two weeks later, Hoyle sent a message to staff stating, “I will not let insincere concerns about ‘process’ be used as a cover for anti-Black bias in our workplace. No one raised the issues of qualifications about a White (civil rights division) manager with no more than a high school diploma but I have to hear about concerns about Black employees’ qualifications for being employed at (civil rights division). That is wrong.”
The next day, Johnson learned that civil rights division investigators had again complained to bureau leaders about her, this time because Johnson hired three Black investigators, the lawsuit says. The investigators referred to this as “cronyism,” according to the lawsuit, even though Johnson “had no prior relationships with these new investigators, their only commonality being race.”
On July 21, 2020, Hoyle sent out an announcement titled “Carol Johnson’s resignation and racism in our workplace” in which Hoyle acknowledged that Johnson’s resignation was due to workplace racism and stated “the reports of actions taken against Carol that we have received are serious and profoundly disturbing,” according to the lawsuit.
None of the civil rights division employees who allegedly subjected Johnson to discriminatory treatment have been disciplined because “the allegations are not substantiated,” Levis said.
Through her attorney Diane Sykes, Johnson declined to comment for this story. She now works as the civil rights director for the city of Austin, according to the website Linkedin. She is seeking $17,000 in economic damages and $2.3 million in noneconomic damages.
– Hillary Borrud; firstname.lastname@example.org; @hborrud
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