2 lawsuits against Deschutes DA settled for $320K

Settlements now total nearly $1.4 million

By Shelby R. King / The Bulletin

The Oregon Department of Administrative Services on Monday released the amounts paid to settle two lawsuits with one former and one current employee of the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office, bringing the total payout on behalf of cases filed against District Attorney Patrick Flaherty to $1.35 million since he took office in 2011.

These are the fourth and fifth employment-related lawsuits involving Flaherty, and the final outstanding suit to be settled by the state on Flaherty’s behalf. Sharon Sweet, a former investigator for the office, was awarded $310,000 from the state and county . The Department of Administrative Services settled with Nicole Jenson, a trial assistant, for $10,314.

Since Jan. 1, 2005, the department has paid $1.693 million in claims on employment-related lawsuits filed against all Oregon district attorneys, according to information from Penny Evans, DAS risk manager. Of that, 80 percent was for cases involving Flaherty.

Sweet filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eugene in April 2013, alleging Flaherty violated her freedom of speech and created a “hostile work environment which amounted to employment discrimination.” She alleged sex and age discrimination, as well as retaliation for filing a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Sweet filed two amended complaints, and the state of Oregon was dismissed from the lawsuit, leaving Flaherty and the county as the remaining defendants.

In November, Flaherty answered Sweet’s amended complaint, saying her work was not “consistently above expectations” while employed at the DA’s office and that she had violated personnel rules by not disclosing a romantic relationship with another investigator in the office. Flaherty also sent a letter to Sweet in January 2012, after she’d been fired, alleging she’d entered the DA’s office without authorization and was “making false accusations” about his office.

Deschutes County will pay $62,000 total, including $24,109.16 to cover Sweet’s legal fees. The DAS will pay $151,563.36 to Sweet and $96,436.64 to Sweet’s Portland-based attorney, Charese Rohny. The terms of the settlement release the county and Flaherty without admission of liability.

Flaherty’s attorney, Keith Bauer, did not return a call for comment Tuesday. Flaherty could not be reached for comment.

Sweet has not commented publicly on the lawsuit and settlement until now.

“Only one opinion matters to Patrick Flaherty, and that is his own. There is no other point of view but his,” Sweet said in a prepared statement. “He treats anyone else who doesn’t line up behind him the same way and has no regard for the cost or consequences.”

The terms of the settlement state Sweet may reapply at the DA’s office after Flaherty has vacated office.

Sweet received a letter of recommendation from Deputy County Administrator Erik Kropp saying she “performed her job duties with integrity” and “was a valued and trustworthy employee.”

“(Flaherty’s) taking no responsibility for costing the taxpayers a ton of money,” Sweet said Tuesday.

Jenson in April 2013 filed suit in U.S. District Court in Eugene alleging Flaherty caused her hardship when he changed her schedule, allegedly in retaliation for her participation in office unionization efforts, because of her sex and her family relationships and because Flaherty was upset that Jenson’s mother-in-law had resigned from the office.

Jenson’s original claim alleged Flaherty and the county together retaliated against her after she reported what she saw as Flaherty’s misuse of a law information database. The county was later dropped from the lawsuit.

Flaherty in June 2013 filed an answer to Jenson’s complaint denying the bulk of the allegations in the lawsuit.

Jenson will receive $1,314 from the DAS, and her Portland-based attorney, Beth Creighton, will receive $9,000 in legal fees. The terms of the settlement also state Jenson will have her prior work schedule reinstated for at least one year.

Three former deputy district attorneys — Phil Duong, Brentley Foster and Jody Vaughan — filed separate lawsuits after they were fired from their positions in the office, and settled in July 2013 for a total of $710,000. The trio originally asked for $22 million and reinstatement, alleging wrongful termination, sex discrimination, unfair labor practices and violations of their First Amendment rights to free speech and association.

Flaherty argued his deputy district attorneys are at-will employees whom he has the right to reappoint or let go. He denied the allegations of wrongful discharge, discrimination and violations of their right to free speech and said they were let go for personnel issues.

— Reporter: 541-383-0376, sking@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In the original version, the settlement amounts to be received by Nicole Jenson and her attorney were transposed.

The Bulletin regrets the error.