EUGENE — A jury saw no validity to three of a former faculty member’s four legal claims against a Christian university here, but affirmed a fourth claim and as a result awarded him $127,000 on May 3.
As reported by The Oregonian, Johnny Lake, a former professor at Northwest Christian University, won on the claim that the school discriminated against him and created a hostile work environment for him based on his race. Lake is African-American.
The university had strongly disputed Lake’s claims after they were filed more than a year ago, and emphasized that the school does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. Pat Walsh, the university’s senior director of marketing and communication, last month expressed disappointment with the jury’s finding on the one claim it accepted,,and said the university was reviewing it to see if further legal action was possible.
An assistant professor at the university from 2011 until December 2017, Lake sued the school for $750,000. He contended that he was wrongly fired while he was on medical leave because of work-related stress; the university countered that Lake was not fired, but acknowledged that his benefits had apparently expired while he was on leave.
Lake initially sought $50,000 for economic damages for lost wages, and up to $700,000 compensation for emotional distress and suffering. lawsuit contended that NCU is a predominantly white institution with a reputation for being unwelcoming to students of color, female students, nonheterosexual students and students with dsiabilities. Lake — who taught courses on diversity, culture, racism and discrimination — claimed he had been warned multiple times by students and community members about racism at the school.
According to the lawsuit, a small number of white students at NCU regularly accused Lake of being racist against white people, or hating white people, or accusing him of being intimidating. But from Lake’s perspective, the university’s administration offered him little support and was noticeably silent in addressing these concerns.
Portland attorney J. Ashlee Albies, who represented Lake, acknowledged that the jury did not find the university liable on the other three claims, which included retaliation and disparate treatment. Lake had charged that his supervisors at the university had retaliated by giving him negative performances reviews and imposing higher expectations on him than other staff members.
But Albies said she and Lake were most concerned about the hostile work environment claim. She said such an environment often develops as an accumulation of incidents over several years, rather than a single incident.