2 ex-counseling center workers sue University of Oregon

Of the The Register-Guard

EUGENE — Two former University of Oregon counseling center employees say they were shunned, criticized and threatened with dismissal at the UO after they blew the whistle on superiors who had seized a student's therapy records, a civil lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court alleges.

Jennifer Morlok, then a senior therapist, and Karen Stokes, then an executive assistant, said in recent interviews that they decided to sue out of frustration after new UO President Michael Schill said publicly that no UO employee did anything wrong with regard to the student.

The 18-year-old student, known publicly only as Jane Doe, sought counseling in 2014 after a sexual encounter with three UO basketball players. The student said she was raped by the men. The players said it was consensual.

The lawsuit by Morlok and Stokes seeks compensation for lost income, lost benefits, lost seniority and emotional distress. It doesn't specify a sum.

The pair hired Portland attorney Beth Creighton, who specializes in employment and civil rights matters, to represent them.

Creighton has represented clients in high-profile cases such as that of Hong Kong spiritual leader Kwai Fun Wong, who was detained and repeatedly strip searched in Multnomah County jails; of Oregon Liquor Control Commission warehouse worker Gene Summerfield, who alleged workplace discrimination; and of a trial assistant who sued the Deschutes County District Attorney's Office.

The university is doing its best, UO spokesman Tobin Klinger said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

"We believe the university has worked diligently and in good faith to balance the complex demands of student privacy, employee rights and fostering a workplace that values trust and ethical conduct.

“Ms. Stokes remains an employee of the university. Ms. Morlok quit, despite efforts to create accommodations intended to protect her and her clients,” Klinger wrote. The UO has not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit.

Shelly Kerr, director of the UO Counseling and Testing Center, is facing a $5,000 fine and an ethics refresher requirement from the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners because of her role in the UO's seizure of the files.

“A system of no accountability,” Morlok wrote in a letter of resignation to the UO on Oct. 31, “is certainly not going to learn from its mistakes, and it perpetuates a cycle of the same unethical and problematic leaders repeating harmful history.” Morlok could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

This is the third lawsuit to stem from a March 2014 rape allegation, which has become a blight that the university can't seem to shake.

In late October, one of the three basketball players, Brandon Austin, filed a $7.5 million suit against the university, saying the administrators treated him unfairly and potentially ruined his professional career when it dismissed him from the team and the campus following the sexual incident.

Jane Doe sued the university earlier this year, saying the UO endangered her when it allowed Austin to enroll because he was under investigation for sexual assault at his previous college in Rhode Island. Jane Doe settled with the UO in August for $800,000 and a four-year, full-ride enrollment at the UO.

Stokes’ and Morlok's lawsuit, meanwhile, provides detail about how the university took custody of Jane Doe's records.

In December 2014, Stokes had been executive assistant to the counseling center director for more than three years.

One day she got an email from center director Kerr saying to make a complete copy of Jane Doe's file and provide it to the university's general counsel without stamping or documenting that the file had been copied, according to the lawsuit. The email also said to discuss the work with no one but counseling department managers.

“Stokes did not understand why the request was made outside the normal procedure and protocol and noticed that there was no consent in the file authorizing the disclosure of the medical records to General Counsel, nor was there any notice to the student's clinical therapist of the request as was the norm for medical records requests,” the lawsuit says.

So, instead of following orders, Stokes made a copy of Kerr's email and took her concerns to Morlok, who was Jane Doe's therapist. Morlok said in the lawsuit that was the first she heard of the university's decision to take the records.

Another employee then did the copying work Kerr requested, the lawsuit says.

Morlok sent Kerr's email, along with a complaint, to the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners, who later found against Kerr. The two also alerted the UO administration about their concerns.

UO officials said earlier that they disagree with the board, and they'll appeal the examiner's decision.

Stokes and Morlok said thereafter they faced on-the-job retaliation. Their duties were assigned to other people, they say in the lawsuit. Stokes was told that Kerr no longer trusted her.

Morlok was a case manager and senior staff therapist at the counseling center for about 2½ years. As Jane Doe prepared her case against the university, she asked Morlok for a letter summarizing her treatment.

Although providing such letters is common, according to the lawsuit, Kerr asked Morlok to not comply with her client's request, the lawsuit said.

“Morlok, feeling uncomfortable with the instruction to deny her client a service, which others had been given in the past without issue, conferred with her own legal counsel about the propriety of denying a summary letter request,” according to the lawsuit.

After, she placed a summary letter in Jane Doe's file in defiance of Kerr's orders because she believed she had a legal and ethical duty to do so, according to the lawsuit.

“In response, Defendant Kerr lectured Morlok for over 2 hours and gave her a directive not to consult with any attorneys about any UO matters and told her if she disobeyed this directive, she could face discipline, up to and including termination,” according to the lawsuit.

Subsequently, Morlok got a negative evaluation, was criticized publicly in a staff meeting and on other occasions for making “frivolous, false, misleading and inappropriate” claims, the lawsuit said. Administrators also ignored her professional opinions on unrelated clients.


Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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