The former chief information officer at Oregon's education department filed notice this week that she intends to sue over her departure.
Former CIO Susie Strangfield resigned last May after being suspended for months while state officials investigated her. OPB previously reported that the state's investigation included unusual accusations — for example, that Strangfield kept her her earbuds in when she walked with coworkers and occasionally raised her voice with colleagues.
Strangfield suspected her suspension and subsequent moves to have her terminated were not about the conduct and project management questions that her attorneys called "frivolous." Instead, she believed that top state officials forced her out because she raised privacy and security concerns about a massive database the state is building with records on millions of Oregonians, many of them children.
Strangfield’s attorneys filed a tort claim notice, essentially a warning that she intends to sue, alleging Strangfield was discriminated and retaliated against, in part for blowing the whistle on the database’s shortcomings.
The threatened lawsuit also argues that Strangfield, as the first female CIO at the education department, was treated differently based on her gender.
“Given Ms. Strangfield’s professional commitment to ODE and to its mission and the great pride that she felt to serve as ODE’s first female CIO, it was particularly devastating that she was discredited, subjected to discrimination and retaliation, and marginalized as a woman in her role as CIO, all without cause or substance,” the tort claim reads.
The claim notice quotes several former administrators at the Department of Education. Johnna Timms, who is African-American, is quoted saying, “I’ve never worked somewhere where gender discrimination is worse than racial discrimination.”
The notice includes Amy McLaughlin who told OPB that Strangfield was treated differently from previous, male chief information officers. And the notice quotes a former Strangfield supervisor, Josh Klein, who said “we have a woman problem at ODE.”
ODE’s communications director Marc Siegel told OPB that the tort notice has been shared with the state’s Department of Justice, but didn’t comment further.
When OPB first reported on Strangfield’s departure over the summer, ODE declined to comment on some of her allegations, but department director Colt Gill did address alleged gender discrimination.
“Oregon Department of Education takes very seriously creating a culture of respect, equity and opportunity for all,” Gill said in a statement. “The department has many women in senior leadership positions who provide incredible value every day. We’re fortunate to be able to rely on their talents and the contributions of all of our employees as we fulfill Oregon’s commitment to fostering equity and excellence for every learner through collaboration with educators, partners and communities.”
Strangfield’s 12-page tort claim includes an entire section on gender bias, with accusations of blame going all the way to the state’s top education official, Gov. Kate Brown.
“ODE’s unwarranted and escalated unlawful actions against Ms. Strangfield occurred under Governor Brown’s leadership, supervision, and management of ODE, as Governor Brown is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, with direct statutory oversight over the agency,” the tort claim reads.
“Ms. Strangfield was betrayed by Governor Brown and her promises to protect women in the workplace,” it continued. “Moreover, several different high-level state leaders, with Governor Brown’s knowledge and under her supervision, actively sought to discriminate, discredit, marginalize, and retaliate against her."
Brown's office responded without addressing the specifics of Strangfield's allegations: “While we cannot comment on the specifics of pending litigation, Governor Brown has put in place strong policies and protections against gender bias in the workplace across the state government, and expects agencies to comply with them fully,” said press secretary Kate Kondayen.
The heart of the tort claim is a timeline from March 2016 through January 2018, during which Strangfield says she had sometimes forceful disagreements with other state officials over the database. Several of those conflicts were reported by OPB previously, but the tort claim adds further examples.
The claim also alleges that ODE’s investigation in 2018 suffered from a “pre-determined outcome” and “ignored all evidence that was contrary to what [human resources director Krista Campbell] was trying to substantiate.”
ODE interviewed Strangfield for nearly four hours as part of the investigation, and there were several areas of inquiry that didn’t appear in the May 7 “pre-termination notice.”
Strangfield’s tort notice doesn’t specify a dollar figure she's seeking, but it expresses an intent to “seek monetary and injunctive relief, punitive damages, attorney fees, and all other available remedies provided by law.”