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Former Oregon Prison Guard Loses Wrongful Termination Suit

On March 10, 2011, a state court jury returned a verdict against a state hospital worker, formerly a prison guard, who alleged his termination was improperly based on race, not because he had been caught having sex in a cemetery while on duty.

As previously reported in PLN, on January 18, 2005, William Coleman began working as a guard at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). He resigned in September 2007 amid an investigation into allegations that he smuggled tobacco and creatine, a muscle-building supplement, into the prison between October 2006 and May 2007.

Despite the circumstances of his resignation, Coleman was hired as a mental health security officer at the Oregon State Hospital (OSH). While there Coleman hooked up with fellow employee Gregory Charles, apparently in more than one sense of that phrase.

On November 24, 2008, Coleman and Charles, both African American, were assigned to patrol the hospital grounds. A gatekeeper at an adjacent cemetery called police when he observed the two having oral sex in a state vehicle parked in a back corner of the cemetery. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.36].

Police questioned Charles and Coleman and reported the incident to their OSH supervisors. Coleman was immediately terminated and Charles was placed on leave before being fired on March 20, 2009. Charles was reinstated to his OSH security job in November 2009, but “continue[d] to be subjected to taunts and ridicule by coworkers and patients.”

He also claimed that his wife divorced him due to the sexual misconduct allegations. Both men denied having sex and claimed they were watching “a suspicious man” riding a bicycle, who, it turned out, was the cemetery gatekeeper.

Both Coleman and Charles filed suit in Marion County Circuit Court, alleging racial discrimination and wrongful termination. “Patients at OSH have been overheard to joke that there are job openings in security and there are oral interviews in the back of state vehicles,” Coleman alleged in his suit.

“I refer to this case as the case of visiting the cemetery while black,” said Kevin Lafky, the attorney representing both men. “It seems to be the reason these gentlemen got fired.” The lawsuit sought $7.48 million in damages.

In June 2009, a grand jury indicted Coleman on a dozen counts of supplying contraband and three counts of receiving bribes when he was employed as a guard at OSP. He was ultimately found not guilty of the charges following a state court jury trial in April 2010.

Coleman claimed his wrongful termination from OSH sullied his reputation. “Since the incident at the cemetery, OSH staff, acting in the course and scope of their employment, have published this false information to other staff members, patients at the hospital, and staff at the Oregon State Penitentiary,” the lawsuit stated.

The discrimination case went to trial in March 2011. Following several days of testimony about the cemetery incident, the jury returned a verdict in favor of OSH. “We’re very gratified that the jury vindicated the state hospital,” said Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Attorney General’s office. See: Coleman v. Hubbard, Marion County Circuit Court (OH), Case No. 10C23895.

Source: The Statesman Journal

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Related legal case

Coleman v. Hubbard