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Lawsuit accuses city of Tigard of discrimination

Van Nguyen says she was demoted and fired by the city because of race and gender

A former Tigard employee has filed a federal lawsuit saying that the city and her former bosses discriminated against her because of her race and gender and retaliated against her when she tried to report it.

Van Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court earlier this month against the city of Tigard as well as former City Manager Craig Prosser, Public Works Director Dennis Koellermeier and Community Development Director Ron Bunch.

The lawsuit claims that the 58-year-old former employee was demoted and eventually fired because of her race and gender and that the city used budget cuts as an excuse to fire her.

The lawsuit alleges that Nguyen - who worked for the city as an engineering manager from 1997 to 2009 - was a satisfactory employee for years until city officials began a 'pattern of racial and gender discrimination' directed against her and other Vietnamese employees.

City officials and Nguyen's lawyers declined to comment on the matter, but the lawsuit claims that the discrimination began as early as 2006, after Nguyen repeatedly requested to be involved with committees and sit in on meetings regarding projects Nguyen was in charge of managing.

Those requests were denied, the lawsuit claims.

In 2008, Nguyen reported to the city's human resources department that she felt she was being discriminated against because of her race and/or gender.

Nguyen received positive performance reviews for more than a decade at the city, but after she reported the discrimination in late 2008 and early 2009, Nguyen began to receive negative evaluations from her superiors.

Nguyen received a performance evaluation from Bunch in February 2009 stating that she needed improvement in every aspect of her performance. Before then, Nguyen had been evaluated as 'meeting or exceeding expectations.'

Nguyen protested the evaluation, and in March 2009 a re-evaluation found that her performance was satisfactory in three of 12 categories.

In August, Nguyen received another poor evaluation and was demoted two levels to project engineer, a non-supervisory role, although her salary remained unchanged.

The demotion was part of a 'reorganization' of the city's engineering department, the city claimed, but Nguyen's lawsuit said that only employees of Asian and Pacific Islander descent were demoted.

In April, Nguyen and two other female employees in the city's public works department were told they would be laid off due to budget cuts.

The city ultimately laid off 11 employees from departments across the city's budget, including the library and police force, totaling $1.5 million in budget cuts.

All of the notified employees were given the opportunity to 'bump' the layoffs to another employee with less seniority, but when Nguyen requested that her layoff be bumped to a lower employee. Her request was denied.

According to the lawsuit, Koellermeier denied the request because of Nguyen's past performance, her denial that she had performed poorly and statements made from past supervisors.

Nguyen was the only employee whose bumping request was denied, the lawsuit alleged.

Nguyen filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries in July 2010.

Investigators with BOLI found that the city discriminated against Nguyen based partly on her race and gender.

'…It does not seem credible that (Nguyen) would successfully perform her job for years only to suffer a total deterioration of her performance on every level,' wrote BOLI investigator Eric Yates in a report. Yates wrote that the city's re-evaluation of Nguyen's performance review suggested the original evaluation was not accurate in the first place.

Although the city had legitimate reasons for its actions, Yates wrote, the 'substantial evidence' that Nguyen provided suggested that those reasons were a pretext for wanting to fire her.

'Based on the totality to the circumstance, a reasonable person could conclude that (the city of Tigard's) stated reason for (its) action was pretext and (Nguyen) was discriminated against in part based on her sex, race or national origin,' Yates wrote.

The lawsuit is asking for past and future earnings, punitive damages and for Nguyen get her old job back.