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BOLI finds evidence to support former PUD employee's claims

A former IT manager for the Columbia River People’s Utility District is expected to sue the district for unlawful employment practices.

John Nguyen filed two claims against the PUD with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Nguyen, who worked for the district since 1987, alleged he was discriminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower.

An investigator who reviewed Nguyen’s BOLI complaints found “substantial evidence” to support Nguyen’s claims.

Joel Christiansen, Nguyen’s attorney, said the PUD and Nguyen couldn’t come to a settlement agreement, but both parties have an ongoing dialogue.

Christiansen couldn’t say whether the case would be filed in state or federal court, but said he expects the suit to be filed within the next month. Nguyen has since withdrawn the BOLI complaints.

“We found it most efficient to withdraw the complaints and, frankly, not waste anymore of the bureau’s resources,” Christiansen said.

According to Nguyen, he endured a pattern of retaliation from his former manager, Kevin Owens, after raising concerns about salary survey software the district used to establish pay ranges for its employees. Nguyen claimed the district was using the wrong parameters to determine salaries for employees, including his own. Nguyen also reported a quarantined email Owens received from a customer and then sent to his son.

Photo Credit: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Kevin Owens, former general manager of the Columbia River People's Utility District, is named as an aider and abettor in two employee complaints against the district filed with BOLI. An investigation into the claims suggests Owens may have illegally retaliated against the employee for being a whistleblower.

The customer’s email provided his electric account number and a personal appeal to Owens for a break on his utility bill, citing physical disability, financial and personal hardships. Owens forwarded the email to his son and the two exchanged several replies, mocking and disparaging the customer.

Nguyen reported both of his concerns to the PUD’s board of directors. He was reprimanded by Owens and asked to create a work plan to correct his behavior, before he was eventually fired in March 2014.

The PUD, through its attorney, responded to the claims made by Nguyen, saying he was fired for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. The district alleges Nguyen knowingly destroyed PUD data related to his claims against the district.

Nguyen’s “defensive, belligerent, and aggressive behavior” toward management was also cited as a major factor in his termination.

BOLI investigator Nicole Babnick claims Nguyen was engaged in protected activity, according to state law. She also found that the sequence of events point to retaliation and termination of Nguyen while he was protected as a whistleblower.

“A reasonable person can conclude that the ... work plan requirements would have never been an issue had Complainant not engaged in protected activity,” her report states.

Babnick said the PUD’s reasons for firing Nguyen are “pretext for protected class discrimination.”

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