A longtime trial lawyer for the Oregon Department of Justice has accused her supervisor—a lawyer who leads employment litigation for the state—of sexual harassment. She has also accused another of the DOJ's top lawyers of gender discrimination and retaliation.
On June 29, Heather Van Meter, a senior assistant attorney general at the DOJ, filed a tort claim notice, accusing her supervisor, assistant attorney in charge of civil litigation Marc Abrams, of kissing her on two separate occasions without her consent and urging her to break up with her then-boyfriend (now fiancé) so she could be with Abrams. She claims Abrams did so knowing he had the authority to have her fired—something she could not afford as a single mother raising two girls and battling breast cancer.
A tort claim is a precursor to a lawsuit that gives the opposing party—in this case, DOJ—the opportunity to agree to a settlement instead of entering litigation.
Van Meter also alleges that Steve Lippold, chief trial counsel for the DOJ, quashed her chances of getting hired for a new DOJ position that would have reduced her interactions with Abrams. She says Lippold later told her over the phone that the position would have been a lot to handle because of her child care responsibilities. (Van Meter says she never had a problem balancing child care and work.)
"I've reached the conclusion that as a female working mother attorney, my options are very limited at DOJ," Van Meter wrote in the tort claim notice. "I can continue working for sexual harasser Abrams, and Lippold with his discrimination and retaliation, but the harassment and discrimination and retaliation will continue unabated; or else I can leave as constructive discharge."
The situation is awkward for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who, as the first woman to hold that job, has made equity a hallmark of her administration. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to Richard Meeker, the co-owner of WW's parent company.)
It is also awkward for the state: Not only is the Justice Department charged with the equitable administration of Oregon laws, but Lippold and Abrams are directly responsible for civil rights and employment cases. And Abrams, who co-hosts a radio show on KXL-FM, is president of the union that represents state DOJ lawyers.
In a statement to WW, Rosenblum said she takes the allegations very seriously.
"The Oregon Department of Justice has high standards of professionalism, and harassment or discrimination of any kind simply have no place there," Rosenblum said. "I strive to lead the Department in a healthy, responsible, proactive fashion, and I welcome a thorough and impartial investigation of this or any other matter. There is an ongoing independent investigation of Ms. Van Meter's allegations that is nearing its conclusion. I intend to act in accordance with the investigator's findings."
Before filing the tort claim notice, Van Meter says she sought mediation twice but received no response from the DOJ. The same day she filed the notice, the DOJ told her it had opened an investigation into her claims. That investigation is still ongoing, according to DOJ spokeswoman Karynn Fish. Neither Abrams nor Lippold have been placed on leave.
Abrams and Lippold deny Van Meter's allegations.
"The accusations are untrue," Abrams said in an email statement. "They are being investigated by DOJ and I fully expect to have them dismissed when the investigation is complete."
Lippold also pointed to the ongoing investigation and expressed confidence that the matter will be dismissed pending the investigation's outcome.
"There is an ongoing internal DOJ investigation concerning the allegations made by Ms. Van Meter, which I refute in their entirety," Lippold said in an email to WW. "I trust this process completely and I am confident that the outcome of that report will be in my favor."
Van Meter's attorney, Sean Riddell, declined to comment on the case beyond what's written in the six-page tort claim notice. Riddell says Van Meter is currently on leave from her position at DOJ for a reason unrelated to the tort claim.
Throughout the document, Van Meter alleges differential treatment by Lippold.
Around 2016, Van Meter, who prior to joining DOJ in 2012 was a partner in the Portland law firm Williams Kastner and co-president of Oregon Women Lawyers, says she complained to human resources at DOJ after numerous instances in which Lippold outright ignored women lawyers who worked for him. Van Meter also alleges that, prior to joining DOJ, Lippold had "refused to allow a successful female attorney to become a partner because he did not believe that women should be trial attorneys or partners in law firms."
When she and other staff voiced these concerns to HR in the summer of 2017, Van Meter says, HR called Lippold over to relay the employees' grievances. Shortly thereafter, Van Meter says, Lippold came to her office "angry and red-faced" and later told her that her caseload was changing and she couldn't handle jury trials because of "performance issues."
She confided to Abrams, the tort claim says. He then suggested Van Meter seek a transfer to DOJ's Portland office to be away from Lippold.
Van Meter says during this time, Abrams knew she was a single mother enduring multiple bouts of breast cancer and therefore unable to quit her job and lose health insurance.
In October 2017, the two attended a professional event where they drank wine and commiserated about their respective divorces. Abrams allegedly vowed to help Van Meter secure an assignment in Portland and to increase the number of employment cases she was working on.
As Van Meter left the event, Abrams offered to walk her to her car, she claims. Once there, he asked for a ride to his home in the Pearl District; Van Meter obliged. As she dropped him off, Van Meter says in the tort claim, Abrams leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
"I was totally surprised and could not think of anything to say or do, since I never thought a supervisor of mine who specializes in employment law would be so reckless to do such a thing that was so obviously illegal and inappropriate," Van Meter says. "It became clear to me at that moment that if I wanted his help or support getting an office or position in Portland and keeping my job, he had relationship/sexual expectations in return."
Van Meter says Abrams later texted her and asked if she liked the kiss. Van Meter says that, if she had complained about that incident, it would have to go through Lippold. She says she feared reprisal and didn't report it.
"Throughout, I knew that since Abrams was my supervisor and also union president he had the ability to make my work very difficult or possibly get me fired, which he absolutely knew I could not afford," Van Meter says.
But by 2018, Van Meter says, she considered the kiss "water under the bridge." She continued in her position and she encountered Abrams at social events. The two sometimes drank wine together outside of working hours. Van Meter says nothing out of the ordinary occurred.
In October 2019, Van Meter invited a few friends, including Abrams, over to her house for dinner. At the last minute, everyone canceled except Abrams, who was already on his way. The two ate dinner together, along with Van Meter's daughters. Afterward, Van Meter went upstairs to put her daughters to bed.
When she came back down, she claims, Abrams was still there. The two chatted casually. Then, Van Meter says, Abrams leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
"I did not react or say anything, as I was totally surprised that two years later I had to deal with this again," Van Meter says. "Again, I was shocked as I thought we had gotten past the incident from October 2017, he was well aware I had a very serious boyfriend with whom I was discussing marriage, he was still my supervisor, and my children were upstairs getting ready for bed."
After the kiss, Abrams told Van Meter he would be waiting for her if she left her boyfriend. He then went home.
Van Meter told her boyfriend what happened.
"We determined that I would avoid Abrams at work, never be alone with Abrams anywhere, and never invite him to my house or any functions," Van Meter says. "Given Abrams' position as supervisor and union president and Lippold being division head to whom complaints would go through, I effectively had no recourse unless I was prepared to quit my job and lose health benefits right before another cancer surgery."
Van Meter says she continued to search for new jobs within the Department of Justice. At one point, she was passed up for another job for which she says she was overqualified. Lippold was one of the interviewers. When he called Van Meter to tell her they had selected a different candidate, Van Meter alleges, he said "'It's good you didn't get the [position] since you have such heavy child care responsibilities,' implying that I could not have handled the position because I have children to care for."