By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Former employee sues county for discrimination

A former employee is suing Yamhill County in federal court, claiming in part that supervisors violated their rights under the 14th Amendment and endangered their safety.

Damien Farmer filed suit in federal court claiming that the county has a longstanding practice of discriminating against “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer employees resulting in multiple complaints and resignations of the victimized employees over the years,” including Farmer, who uses the pronouns they/their. The complaint further alleges they were retaliated against for making a whistleblower complaint.

Farmer is a former caseworker for at-risk youth and families for the county’s Health and Human Services Department. The county has waived service of the lawsuit, but has not yet filed an answer with the court.

In addition to the county, Farmer names two individuals; their supervisor, Zoe Pearson, and Behavioral Health Director Jason Henness.

According to the lawsuit, once Farmer came out as transgender, Pearson began treating them differently. The lawsuit says the nature of the work required Farmer “to be able to be authentic about their transgender identity,” but that Pearson “repeatedly made them feel ashamed after they came out.”

Further, Farmer alleges that “When it became obvious that one family was hostile towards Farmer’s transgender identity and LGBTQ communities, Pearson forced Farmer to continue working with the youth’s family in an unsafe situation and failed to address Farmer’s concerns of discrimination. As a result, the family’s hostility against Farmer escalated, culminating in multiple unsubstantiated reports of abuse against Farmer.”

It says that “Despite Farmer’s complaints to upper management about Pearson’s discriminatory acts and egregious failures to protect Farmer, Yamhill County did not take prompt or remedial action, create safe working conditions, or engage in an interactive process for Farmer to be able to return to work.”

The lawsuit says that in October 2021, Farmer filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

In October 2022, it says, “BOLI issued a Notice of Substantial Evidence Determination, stating that Farmer ‘has provided substantial evidence showing he was discriminated against in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment due to his sex, gender, and/or sexual orientation.’”

The lawsuit says that Farmer had argued to the county that their status as a transgender man made them particularly suited for working with at-risk youth, noting that “LGBTQ youth were often at the most at-risk due to not having any social supports or visible role models.”

However, it says, “Pearson verbally reprimanded Farmer for making the comment about being a visible transgender person, stating that the comment and Farmer’s demeanor could be seen as ‘aggressive’ and ‘intimidating.’ Pearson told Farmer they had to recognize their ‘male privilege’ and needed to be aware of how their actions could make women feel ‘unsafe.’”

It says that in 2020, after Farmer returned to work following gender surgery, Pearson assigned them to a family in which the youth had made previous accusations of impropriety against male providers.

“At the first meeting with ABC’s family in their home, the youth asked Farmer if they were transgender and Farmer responded yes. Shortly thereafter, a colleague told Farmer that ABC’s family expressed objections to having Farmer on the team due to their transgender identity,” the lawsuit states.

However, it says, even after meeting with Farmer and a union representative to discuss Farmer’s request to be removed from the case, “Pearson did not replace Farmer with a different case manager or provide any other support to mitigate the concerns of discrimination. Instead, Pearson minimized Farmer’s concerns and directed Farmer to consider the ‘appropriateness’ of disclosing their sexual and gender identity to any youth on their caseload and stated that this case was an example of an inappropriate instance of disclosure of their transgender identity.”

It says that “Soon thereafter, the family subjected Farmer to multiple discriminatory statements over the next few months, including but limited to the mother repeatedly using the term ‘gay’ in a derogatory way.”

The lawsuit alleges that Pearson’s actions “violated established department policy,” and cites several instances in which it says Pearson reprimanded Farmer for actions that other employees were not reprimanded for, and additional instances in which Pearson again refused to remove Farmer from working with the hostile family, despite Farmer’s requests and additional accusations and complaints by the family.

It says that all of the family’s accusations were eventually found to be unsubstantiated, but that Pearson placed Farmer on paid administrative leave while they were being investigated, and “indicated her unsubstantiated belief that the allegations must somehow be Farmer’s fault.”

Farmer eventually complained to the county’s Human Resources department, the lawsuit says, but “Yamhill County sought to put Farmer back to work under the supervision of Pearson prior to either investigation being completed.”

It says that in June 2021, “Jason Henness, Behavioral Health Director, informed Farmer that the allegations against Farmer were unsubstantiated.”

However, it alleges that “Yamhill County and Henness failed to take prompt and remedial action against Pearson. Defendants Yamhill County and Henness failed to inform Farmer regarding the outcome of the investigation into Pearson and failed to create safe working conditions for Farmer to be able to return to work, even after the investigations into Farmer were all unsubstantiated.”

Farmer resigned from the county in November, 2021.

“Defendants intentionally created or intentionally maintained the working conditions described above, including one that was unsafe to Plaintiff, where Plaintiff experienced retaliation for voicing safety concerns, and Defendants indicated they would not take appropriate measures to keep Plaintiff safe; these working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person in Plaintiff’s position would have resigned because of them; Defendants desired to cause Plaintiff to leave employment as a result of those working conditions or knew that the employee was certain or substantially certain, to leave employment as a result of those working conditions,” the lawsuit states.

Yamhill County does not comment on pending litigation, and has not yet filed an answer with the court.


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