Labor & Employment Law Daily Oregon city will pay $600K over alleged arrest of Black worker to deter his discrimination suit against employer
Thursday, February 20, 2020

Oregon city will pay $600K over alleged arrest of Black worker to deter his discrimination suit against employer

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The police chief of West Linn, Oregon, allegedly directed trumped-up criminal charges to help his friend deter his company’s African-American employee from filing a workplace race discrimination lawsuit.

The City of West Linn, Oregon, has agreed to pay $600,000 to resolve a lawsuit alleging federal claims under Section 1981 and 1983, and state law claims for malicious prosecution and false arrest and imprisonment, as well as other claims, brought by an African-American employee whose boss allegedly convinced his friend, the Chief of Police, to take action aimed at heading off a potential lawsuit after the employee raised race discrimination allegations.

Trumped up charges. The actions that the police chief and other members of his department took in 2017 on behalf of the chief’s friend, whose business was located in Portland, well outside the boundaries of West Linn, included building a case that the employee was involved in theft from his employer, the police chief’s friend, according to the second complaint. The investigation culminated in an unlawful, extra-jurisdictional, and unwarranted surveillance operation in Portland at the business of the police chief’s friend where the employee was working, the complaint alleged.

Although the surveillance allegedly failed to turn up any evidence of wrongdoing, two West Linn police sergeants, with the participation of Portland police officers, arrested the employee based on false representations to the Portland Police that the West Linn police had “probable cause” for an arrest.

False arrest and imprisonment. A text message from one of the West Linn sergeants allegedly advised that the arrest should happen quickly so that it would take place before the employee could further pursue his race discrimination complaint: “It’s better that we arrest him before he makes the complaint [of race discrimination]. Then it can’t be retaliation,” the text message purportedly states.

The two West Linn sergeants “unlawfully arrested, detained and interrogated [the employee] in Portland, outside their jurisdiction, without probable cause,” according to the complaint. They also allegedly seized the employee’s belongings, including his smartphone, personal papers, and attorney-client privileged communications between the employee and his employment attorney about his concerns of workplace racial discrimination.

After the interrogation, the West Linn sergeants purportedly took the employee to the Justice Center in Downtown Portland and had him incarcerated in a jail cell. The employee alleged he was released around midnight, on his own recognizance, with no smartphone, only his wallet, and information on a court arraignment the following Monday. The ordeal lasted about eight hours, the complaint states.

The city settles. The city announced the resolution of the lawsuit on February 11, saying that the “cessation of litigation expenses was in the best interest of the City and allows us to focus on our core mission of service to the community.” The city also explained that the “settlement is not an admission of liability; it seeks to avoid additional expense, uncertainty, and drain on public resources.”

The city and the police department stated that they “do not tolerate any acts of discrimination or disparate treatment by its employees.” When the allegations were first reported, “an internal investigation was conducted and swift and appropriate disciplinary personnel action was taken,” according to the city.

County DA launches investigation. The day after the settlement was announced, the new police chief, in an “open letter to the community,” pointed to the many changes that have been made at the West Linn Police Department. He also said that the Clackamas County District Attorney’s office was launching a full investigation into the actions concerning the employee and the West Linn Police Department. “In light of the recently released transcripts produced through depositions taken after our internal disciplinary investigation was completed, we welcome this investigation with full cooperation and acceptance,” the new police chief said, also announcing that the only remaining member of the West Linn Police Department associated with the employee’s case has been placed on paid administrative leave, “pending the final outcome of Clackamas County District Attorney’s investigation.”

Calls for federal investigation. Two days later, on February 14, the city announced that it had sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice joining “calls for an investigation of police conduct in the 2017 arrest of [the employee].”

“As the representatives of the citizens of West Linn, we have an obligation to hold those within city government accountable, including ourselves,”

“We are committed to finding answers and join our community, state leaders, federal representatives, and our current Chief of Police in calling for a thorough outside review by the Department of Justice into the actions of the City of West Linn and the West Linn Police Department in this case,” the statement continues.

“It is our hope that by fully addressing the concerns of our community, we can begin to rebuild the trust that has been compromised by this case,” the city said.

The lawsuit, Fesser v. City of West Linn, was filed in the District of Oregon; the case is No. 3:18-cv-01516-SB.

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