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A Risk Assessor Says the State of Oregon Lost Court Cases It Should Have Settled—and Punished Her for Speaking Up

This is the second time this summer that the Oregon Department of Justice has faced allegations of misogyny.

In a whistleblower lawsuit filed Sept. 10 in Marion County Circuit Court, a longtime state employee accuses the Oregon Department of Administrative Services of retaliating against her for complaining about the Oregon Department of Justice.

It's an unusual lawsuit, because the plaintiff claims her bosses didn't back her up in a dispute with another state agency. Her claim: that DOJ ignored her  advice and unnecessarily litigated cases that resulted in jury verdicts against the state.

In addition, the plaintiff claims that DOJ lawyers treated women with contempt.

Shauneen Scott is a 35-year employee of the state of Oregon. Since 2015, she has worked as a risk manager for the Department of Administrative Services. Scott was responsible for reviewing complex liability claims against the state and determining whether to pay or negotiate the claims—or ask the DOJ take them to court.

Hundreds of people threaten to sue the state each year. The DAS evaluates those legal claims, and decides whether the state is more likely to lose money by paying out a settlement or going to trial. In effect, risk managers perform for the Department of Justice the role an insurer often plays for a private company—they evaluate potential loss and decide whether a trial is worth the gamble.

But Scott alleges she witnessed a "pattern and practice of violations by attorneys from DOJ" that included DOJ lawyers determining "without authority" whether a case should settle and the dollar amount of the settlement.

Scott says DOJ lawyers routinely denied her office the ability to settle claims for a "low and reasonable amount" and instead determined that cases should go to trial, resulting in what Scott described as unnecessary million-dollar losses. What's more, the DOJ lawyers would then continue to bill and collect attorney fees from the state's risk management division.

"Despite having no legitimate defenses and recognizing that a high-dollar jury award was likely, DOJ insisted that if plaintiff's attorneys were going to get a large amount of money, they would have to 'work' for it by going to trial," the complaint says. "As a result, the state unnecessarily loses millions of dollars after jury verdicts or ends up paying higher settlements just before trial that could have been avoided had prior settlements been reached."

Scott alleges her superiors at the Department of Administrative Services allowed this practice to occur despite its strain on the state's resources. She does not cite specific cases.

Scott's lawsuit claims she raised concerns with her supervisor and was retaliated against by having her workload reduced significantly and being scrutinized differently than her colleagues.

Scott is suing her employer, DAS, for retaliation. She's seeking $700,000 in non-economic damages, including embarrassment, anxiety, humiliation, emotional distress, damage to her professional reputation and loss of enjoyment of life.

"Our client has leveled serious accusations that should be of maximum importance to the citizens of this state," Scott's attorney, Shannon Rickard, tells WW. "She looks forward to the opportunity to prove her claims in a court of law."

DAS declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Scott's complaint also says that DOJ lawyers are "dismissive of women" and treated her with condescension. It suggests they lost taxpayer money by underestimating the women they faced in court.

She says male leadership at the DOJ described opposing female lawyers as "nothing more than support staff" and that trial leadership and trial lawyers regularly make "unsupported, racially discriminatory, and defamatory statements about opposing attorneys and victims who bring cases against the state."

That's the second time this summer that a legal claim cites a misogynistic culture within the DOJ. (A tort claim filed June 29 by Oregon DOJ trial lawyer Heather Van Meter accuses her supervisor Marc Abrams of sexual harassment and lead DOJ trial lawyer Steve Lippold of sexist comments and behavior.)

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has described gender equity as one of her top priorities, which makes the complaints unsettling. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW's parent company.)

In a joint statement issued in response to questions from WW, Rosenblum and Deputy Attorney General Fred Boss pledged an investigation into claims made in the lawsuit and said the agency is committed to fostering a professional and safe environment "free of discrimination or harassment of any kind."

"It is, of course, disheartening to learn that anyone thinks we are not living up to these standards," Rosenblum and Boss said. "We commit to looking fully into the allegations of Ms. Scott's complaint that pertain to DOJ and, if appropriate, to making improvements to our settlement processes and workplace—to align them with the 'gold standard' of conduct and service we aspire to."