Investigations by Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, or BOLI, into Pacific University could result in fines of up to $843,000 — and potentially more depending on additional complaints.
BOLI’s intent to assess the private university for fines is based on seven complaints from people who say the university has not given them their full employee personnel files as required by state law. Some of those former employees claim they were forced out by bogus investigations led by a Pacific administrator, and they hope BOLI’s action can shed light on that.
BOLI on Tuesday sent a notice of its intent to assess civil penalties against the private university in Forest Grove. That was after months of the agency saying it had asked Pacific to provide personnel files to the former employees who had requested them.
“I feel a huge amount of vindication on behalf of my clients who have been fighting to get their personnel files produced to them as required under Oregon law by Pacific University,” said Robin DesCamp, an attorney representing former university employees.
DesCamp said there are other former Pacific employees who are in the process of getting added to that list of seven complainants through BOLI.
But, DesCamp said, she doesn’t think the university will go down without a fight.
“I believe that the university will fight this because they know that in order for them to follow the law, they will have to give up evidence that proves my clients’ allegations,” she said.
The university, on the other hand, says it has been following the law all along.
Jennifer Yruegas, Pacific’s general counsel as well as dean of the university’s college of business, said Pacific believes it has complied with BOLI, but sees inconsistencies in BOLI’s notice.
“Several discrepancies within the assessment are really concerning,” Yruegas told OPB. “And [it] really looks as though information wasn’t reviewed that was provided before making the assessment.”
One of those “discrepancies” Yruegas described involved two of the seven complainants documented in BOLI’s notice. She said they had not requested their personnel files directly from the university as required. According to a response Pacific sent to BOLI in May regarding the requests, an outside attorney for the university said one of the complainants had requested their personnel record by sending an email to the wrong address. The university said it had not officially received a request from another complainant.
Still, Yruegas said, at this point — now months later — the university has provided all of the records that it can to all seven complainants. She said some records the university is withholding are protected either due to student privacy or attorney-client privilege. Those could be records like complaints or evaluations by students, or certain investigative documents.
Yruegas said another reason Pacific has withheld some documents is that some faculty members waived access to parts of their personnel files while going up for tenure. She said that’s so outside scholars and others who review the faculty member can do so confidentially.
The former employees disagree with Pacific’s arguments. So does BOLI.
“Pacific can make their arguments in the appeal process before the administrative law judge,” BOLI spokesperson, Duke Shepard said.
“There’s no reason the personnel records shouldn’t be turned over,” Kelly Paxton told OPB. “The only reason you wouldn’t get them is because they’re trying to hide something.”
Paxton is the widow of one of the complainants, Richard Paxton — a former tenured professor at Pacific. He died last year, after leaving Pacific, but Kelly is continuing on with BOLI’s investigation. She’s also proceeding with a lawsuit he filed against the university before he died.
Like some of the other complainants in the BOLI cases, Kelly Paxton says her late husband was wrongfully forced out of the university, and she thinks the personnel files can help show that.
Richard Paxton was in his 16th year of teaching at Pacific when the university suspended him. The disciplinary move followed complaints from students about alleged offensive comments he had made in class regarding gender and ethnicity.
He filed a lawsuit in June of last year, claiming the university had wrongfully taken action against him and ignored due process by suspending him. He received support from academic organizations including the American Association of University Professors.
Pacific commissioned an outside investigation into Paxton under the federal civil rights law known as Title IX. That inquiry was later dismissed, but the university launched its own internal investigation.
He was essentially fired from the university a few months after he filed his lawsuit, through a recommendation for dismissal from a committee of the university’s faculty senate.
Kelly Paxton believes if Pacific does turn over the personnel records, it would disprove the accusations against her late husband.
“What they accused him of is so wrong,” she said. “He was nothing [like] what they have put out.”
Other complainants feel the same way — that receiving their personnel files from Pacific will help shed light on faulty investigations by the university.
Kelly Paxton, like other complainants in the BOLI cases and in separate lawsuits against Pacific, says one particular person at Pacific was at the head of these investigations which resulted in Pacific employees being forced out — general counsel and dean of the college of business, Jennifer Yruegas.
Prior to her current positions, Yruegas also served as the associate vice president of human resources and the university’s Title IX coordinator, among other titles.
She’s a defendant in multiple ongoing lawsuits involving Pacific, including Paxton’s.
Yruegas told OPB she could not discuss any ongoing litigation or specifics about any current or former Pacific employees, and she said that she and the university followed correct processes.
Trouble with HR
Rapheal “Joe” Hamilton began working in 2018 as a tenure-track associate professor in Pacific’s college of business. He’s another one of the BOLI complainants, and he’s filed a lawsuit against Pacific.
According to the lawsuit, Hamilton is a retired veteran and he has a disability — a traumatic brain injury he sustained in combat. He began having conflicts with his college’s leadership, and eventually Yruegas, when he asked for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to Hamilton and his lawsuit against the university, his then-supervisor “belittled, embarrassed and traumatized him” during a meeting in early 2020 — demanding details about Hamilton’s disability after he requested an accommodation. Hamilton ended up making a complaint against his supervisor to human resources following the interaction.
Hamilton said Yruegas, in her capacity as vice president of HR, told him that his supervisor skipped supervisor training and that Hamilton should not expect an apology. Hamilton said Yruegas told him multiple times to drop the complaint against his supervisor.
A few months after Hamilton lodged the complaint against his supervisor, Yruegas was appointed associate dean of the college of business — making her another one of Hamilton’s bosses. At that time, Hamilton said, neither his original ADA accommodation request nor his complaint against his supervisor had been addressed.
In October 2020, Hamilton attempted to bring something up in the college of business’ monthly faculty meeting. He said Yruegas, his other supervisor and another university administrator made a change to his program, accounting, without consulting or informing him.
Hamilton said Yruegas interrupted him at the meeting and told him to stop when he attempted to bring it up.
“I was in such rough shape after that meeting. I just couldn’t believe it. They’re making changes without letting me know. They’re shutting me down in these meetings,” Hamilton told OPB. “You know, it just all came to a head and I had to take [medical leave] which was done immediately at the advice of my medical team, because I was just at wit’s end.”
About a month after Hamilton took medical leave, he was informed by the university that an employee had filed a bias report against him, claiming during that meeting he was being racist and hostile toward faculty and staff of color, including Yruegas.
According to Hamilton’s lawsuit, the university launched a longer-than-four-month outside investigation into him following the bias report.
Hamilton received a summarized recap of the investigation results, but he said he has not seen the official documents from the investigator. He said that if Pacific does turn over a complete set of personnel files, that full investigation could be part of it.
Hamilton said the summary of the investigation, provided to him by Pacific’s HR department, found he was racist as well as “anti-gay” and “aggressive,” but the summary did not specify what Hamilton did or said. Those accusations also did not come up in the investigator’s questioning of Hamilton. Hamilton refutes those allegations.
Hamilton says the university never investigated his original complaint against his supervisor.
He resigned last year after consultation with his medical team.
“What I’m hoping is that Pacific’s held accountable,” Hamilton told OPB. “I want personally for Pacific to be transparent — with myself [and] my legal team. What really bugged me is it’s a good university. There’s good kids going there, and it just seems that we can do better. They can do better.”
Along with his BOLI complaint, Hamilton also filed a lawsuit against Pacific last year claiming the university retaliated against him and discriminated against him due to his disability.
In a response filed against Hamilton’s lawsuit, Pacific University says it has given Hamilton online access to his personnel file, but Hamilton says those records are incomplete.
“All I’ve received is copies of my pay stubs and some of the original paperwork I signed when I on-boarded, but that’s it,” Hamilton said. “If there’s this big of a hubbub going on, I would expect there to be some other things in there. We know there should be.”
‘I lost a job that I loved’
Not all of the people pressing for their personnel files were on the Pacific faculty, or are actively suing the university.
Sarah Clarke worked for Pacific University for nearly 18 years until she was fired. She was a lead medical assistant in the university’s student health center.
“I and other coworkers had noticed, talking amongst ourselves, that people were disappearing from Pacific — people that had been there for a long time. And we knew that there was a new director of HR, and we were hearing that she was behind letting these people go,” Clarke told OPB, referring to Yruegas.
Clarke said that’s what happened to her.
“I got on her radar, and that’s kind of the way it’s going from the stories that I’m hearing from the other people,” Clarke said. “Jennifer [Yruegas] decides she doesn’t like you and she finds a way to get rid of you.”
Clarke said she was up for the temporary position of interim director of the student health center after the director at the time announced her retirement. Clarke acknowledged she was close with that director, referring to her as somewhat of a mother figure. But, she says she didn’t get any special treatment. But she said a coworker disagreed and brought up Clarke’s move into the interim director position to Yruegas as inappropriate.
“[Yruegas] scheduled a meeting with all of my coworkers and wanted everyone to tell her how they felt about me being [interim] director … she went and scheduled this meeting with everyone but myself,” Clarke said. “When I found that out, I went to her office and asked if I could speak with her and proceeded to be berated.”
Clarke said Yruegas told her that she started an investigation into her, and that she was not fit to be the health center’s interim director, even temporarily. Clarke said she continued doing her job as usual and the university eventually hired a new permanent director.
“I guess I didn’t feel scared for my job because I knew I hadn’t done anything. And my understanding at the time about HR was that they were there for the employees and to help you,” Clarke said.
Months later, Clarke was assigned to discuss scheduling with another medical assistant who had just returned from maternity leave. She said that’s when she had another confrontation with Yruegas.
Clarke said Yruegas accused her of telling her coworker that she should not work full-time since becoming a new mother.
“Jennifer [Yruegas] told me the reason that I was being let go was because I was talking to a coworker that technically I was a supervisor of,” Clarke said. “I was not her supervisor. I was a lead medical assistant. I was not ever anybody’s supervisor.”
Supervisor or not, Clarke said the conversation Yruegas described never happened.
“I didn’t do what she said I did, and that’s the bottom line, and I lost a job that I loved,” Clarke said.
During their conversation, Clarke said that Yruegas reiterated that she had investigated Clarke.
“She pushed a file over to me which had this document [that] said horrible, false things about me and my job performance,” Clarke said. “I worked there for many years. I had a stellar record. I’ve won two awards at the university given to me by the university for my work I’ve done for the students.”
Clarke provided OPB with a “Notice of Termination for Cause” written by Yruegas. It stated that Clarke had a “clear pattern of misconduct, substantiated by multiple individuals.”
Clarke said she had to sign documents that she would not contact any of her former coworkers or set foot on the university’s campus, or Pacific could take legal action against her.
At the time, Clarke’s daughter was attending Pacific without having to pay tuition because of Clarke’s employment. A condition of her separation from the school was that Clarke had to sign that paperwork or her daughter would not be able to continue attending the university tuition-free (tuition and fees at Pacific University are roughly $52,000 for the 2022-23 school year). Clarke’s daughter graduated last year.
Clarke is in the process of getting added to the list of complainants involved in BOLI’s investigation of Pacific.
DesCamp, the attorney representing former Pacific employees, said there are other former employees that she’s also pushing to get included in the BOLI complaints.
“I’ve requested my records multiple times. I have been given a watered-down version of what I already personally have which is basically copies of all my stellar reviews, 18 years full of them, copies of awards,” Clarke said. “And there’s nothing in there talking about any misconduct, any misconduct at all, but especially any misconduct that I was told I did that caused me to lose my job.”
Yruegas responded that she’s limited in what she can say, because she can’t address any individual cases wrapped up in ongoing litigation or speak about any current or former university employees.
“That’s always a hard situation because as much as we may want to provide information or defend, we’re just obligated to maintain attorney-client privilege, and we’re obligated to maintain confidentiality for students. We’re obligated to maintain confidentiality of employees and former employees,” Yruegas said.
In regard to the BOLI notice, she restated that Pacific has handed over all the documents it legally can.
“Pacific is following the obligations that have been set out in front of it,” Yruegas said. “It’s not about hiding something, it’s about actually following the obligations that we’re required to follow.”
The complainants in the BOLI investigation against Pacific hope that even if the university refuses to turn over the personnel files, the daily fines the school could incur from BOLI will prompt some accountability or change.
“The only thing that will hurt Pacific is for them to pay money and to learn their lesson that they cannot mess with people — good, good people,” Kelly Paxton, Richard Paxton’s widow, said. “No one’s getting any closure. I just want closure.”
The attorney for the complainants, DesCamp, also mentioned money as a factor Pacific leaders should be paying attention to.
“The board of trustees is either complicit or complacent,” DesCamp said. “Either way, to ignore what is coming in terms of damage to the endowment is terribly foolish.”
Pacific has 20 days to request a BOLI hearing in front of an administrative law judge to challenge BOLI’s allegations.
Yruegas said the university also has the opportunity to enter into settlement discussions with complainants, which she said they will do.
“We will take advantage to have those amicable discussions,” she said. “And there’s a certain limited period of time you can request a hearing, so we’ll make sure to take advantage of that if necessary.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misrepresented the conclusion of the external Title IX investigation involving Richard Paxton. OPB regrets the error.