Jury Rejects Claim that Corvallis’ Sen. Gelser Blouin Unjustly Fired Staffer

The Oregon Legislature and two Democratic lawmakers didn’t retaliate against a former staffer who was twice fired after two short stints working with different lawmakers, a federal jury determined.

After a week of testimony, the jury on Monday rejected allegations from Laura Hanson that her bosses refused to provide accommodations for mental and physical disabilities and fired her for requesting accommodations. Hanson worked for less than two years as Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin’s chief of staff and mere weeks as Rep. Khanh Pham’s legislative assistant.

Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, attended the trial all last week and said she was relieved by the verdict. It concurred with earlier determinations by an independent investigator hired by the Legislature, as well as the bipartisan Senate Conduct Committee.

“It’s been a really long time – this started before COVID –  so it’s nice to have that chapter closed and be ready to just move on,” she said.

Hanson’s attorney, Rebecca Cambreleng, said she was disappointed in the outcome.

“We are still looking at options on where to go forward from here, but this is not going to stop us from fighting for people in the workplace to be treated fairly and equally,” Cambreleng said.

The case, heard in U.S. District Court in Portland, marks a years-long attempt by Hanson to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Her initial suit asked for $1.2 million.

She was hired as Gelser Blouin’s chief of staff in December 2018, according to court records. She took medical leave in October of 2019, less than a year after she was hired, and alleged that Gelser Blouin “seemed angry” when she returned to work.

After being diagnosed with another disability – unspecified but related to her mental health, according to the complaint – Hanson requested medical leave for mental health days in December 2019, according to court records. At the end of December, she ​​texted Gelser Blouin that her office was a “a toxic and emotionally abusive work environment.”

Gelser Blouin reported the texts to the Legislature’s human resources director, leading to an investigation that ultimately cleared Gelser Blouin. Hanson was placed on administrative leave for the roughly 10 months that investigation took, then Gelser Blouin fired her in October of 2020.

In May 2021, Hanson filed her lawsuit against the state, the Legislature, Gelser Blouin and senators who at the time chaired the Senate Conduct Committee. She initially filed it in the Multnomah County Circuit Court, but it was reassigned to the federal court.

While the case proceeded, Hanson found a new job at the Capitol – working as a legislative assistant for Pham, D-Portland. She was hired just before Christmas in 2022, and on Jan. 3, 2023, she met with her supervisor to ask for disability accommodations including that she be given clear, written instruction and expectations regarding her job duties, according to court records.

She immediately began struggling with work and was fired about three weeks later. According to Hanson’s complaint, Pham cited “differences in political and communications strategy (that) are leading to tension, duplicative work, and lost time,” and said she needed a legislative assistant who would “accept direction under my chief of staff and legislative director, rather than question and critique the strategy and bypass their directions.”

Pham did not immediately return a call.

by Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle

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