Lawsuit cites nooses in staff break room

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A former worker at a Portland, OR, senior living community has filed a lawsuit claiming that her employment was wrongfully terminated in part because she complained after two nooses were found hanging from the rafters of an employee break room. Ebony Hankins asserts that that community leaders downplayed the discovery of the nooses and “considered the incident just a harmless joke.”

Hankins filed the lawsuit Dec. 31 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, Portland, OR, against the current and former operators of Pacifica Senior Living Calaroga Terrace, an independent and assisted living community. She is seeking more than $400,000 in a jury trial. Her complaint includes claims of racial discrimination, harassment and wrongful discharge stemming in part from actions related to the incident.

According to the lawsuit, Hankins, who is African-American, was co-employed by Portland, OR-based Encore Senior Living and West Palm Beach, FL-based Oasis Outsourcing when she began working as a server in October 2013. That same month, she was promoted to an assistant dining room manager.

Des Moines, IA-based LCS acquired Encore Senior Living effective Feb. 1, 2014. In September of that year, according to the lawsuit, two employees found the nooses. When the community's executive director, who is white, was told of the nooses, she removed them but “treated it as a prank” and later said that the ropes were there to assist in the moving of furniture, the suit says. An LCS regional consultant later told workers that an employee had hung the nooses and had been disciplined.

In early 2015, San Diego-based Pacifica Senior Living began operating the community, and the company did not retain Hankins. Hankins contends that her employment was wrongfully terminated Jan. 30, 2015, in part because she complained about the handling of the noose incident. The suit also notes issues related to Hankins' using leave to attend to a disabled child and her expressing concerns about a new policy that required servers to deliver meals to residents with the norovirus because she feared potential cross-contamination throughout the community.

Before Hankins' employment was terminated, according to the lawsuit, community leaders retaliated against her by reducing her work hours, referring to her as a “lead server” instead of by her actual title, prohibiting her from using the shared supervisors' office that she had been using, and telling coworkers not to speak with her because she was filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Encore Senior Living; Oasis Outsourcing; Life Care Services; Pacifica Senior Living; the community's executive director, business office manager, dining room manager and human resources manager; and the LCS regional consultant. Hankins is seeking up to $300,000 in noneconomic damages for “emotional distress, anguish, humiliation, and anxiety” and up to $100,000 in economic damages for “loss of earnings, loss of benefits, loss of job opportunities and other employment benefits.” She also is seeking money to cover attorneys' fees and other costs, as well as reinstatement of her position. Hankins plans to seek punitive damages, too, according to the lawsuit.

McKnight's Senior Living contacted all of the companies named as defendants in the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for LCS said the company does not comment on personnel matters and is no longer associated with Calaroga Terrace. None of the other companies responded to the request for comment.

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