Another Year, Another Lawsuit 

posted in: Editorial | 4

Pacific University’s name is in the news yet again—and again for a lawsuit. This time the bill is big, $4 million dollars.

   A week before students returned to campus, a jury in Portland handed down a troubling verdict: Pacific University was ordered to pay a former graduate student nearly $4 million for emotional distress. 

   At first glance, the verdict is confusing: The lawsuit stems from a student, Peter Steele, who was enrolled in a Master’s program three years ago and was accused of sexual assault. Subsequently, Steele was suspended indefinitely from Pacific University; as well a restraining order was filed against him by his victim. Then, in a surprise turn of events, Steele sued the university for the emotional distress that he claimed these actions caused him—and in late August, a jury handed down a verdict in his favor. 

   But in awarding Steele nearly $4 million, the jury did not rule on whether the former student sexually assaulted another student; instead, the jury essentially said that it was how the university went about getting rid of Steele which gave him validity for the big-ticket settlement. 

   Moreover, that lawsuit and that large settlement are part of a larger, disturbing pattern: Over the past few years, there have been several lawsuits leveled against the university from wrongful dismissals and, more specifically, at the center of the lawsuits has been Jennifer Yruegas, the former general counsel and Title IX coordinator for Pacific University, and, since 2021, the current Dean of the College of Business. Likewise, in the most recent case, the pivot point for the jury’s decision seems based on how Yruegas dealt with Steele, the dismissed student; specifically, Steele accused Yruegas of failing to play a neutral role in this case—and it was seemingly that accusation with which the jury agreed. Said differently, if this were a baseball game, the dispute wasn’t whether the runner was out at first, but whether the umpire was impartial. 

   Beyond the financial hit, the recent jury decision also stirred up the type of publicity no university wants: The story was carried by the Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcast and Willamette Week, the Portland-based weekly newspaper that has a Pulitzer on its shelf for investigative reporting and, almost a year to the day, dug up more dirt on Yruegas.

   In August 2022, the Willamette Week broke the news that a year before Pacific hired Yruegas, she had potentially bilked friends out of a half-million dollars when she spearheaded a dubious investment scheme into a weed farm that never went anywhere. In that matter, investors sued Yruegas demanding repayment. Ultimately, the lawsuit was settled out of court with Yruegas reportedly paying back investors $150,000. 

   Nearly two months after that news broke, in October 2022, Pacific University—and again with Yruegas at the eye of the storm—hit the news again, when the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries announced fine in the tune of $843,000 for failure to disclose personnel records in the pending employment lawsuits. 

   Because legal matters are pending with lawsuits from former employees—and also including a potential appeal against the $4 million settlement in the Steele case—President Jenny Coyle has declined to comment; however, to use another sports metaphor, the Index has to wonder: If the quarterback keeps getting sacked, why keep the same offensive line? – The Index Staff


4 Responses

  1. Steve Rhine

    Thank you for asking these questions of the university. If we want to have an institution to be proud of, we need to be directly addressing these issues, especially with Yruegas who seems to be at the center of each of these lawsuits because of mistakes made and due process not followed.

  2. Kelly Paxton

    Steve, Thank you for your support. Richard supported his colleagues and it is incredibly meaningful to see this. I heard this week many students also supported Richard and his teaching yet none of that has made it to any publication, especially the Pacific Index. I appreciate they covered this story to date but now we know the administration is actively censoring the paper and many students. Best of luck.

  3. David Cordes

    Thank you for this important editorial. It is worrisome that the author of this piece felt the need to remain anonymous. It seems to be the case that legal and administrative decisions at Pacific are creating an atmosphere that is not conducive to free speech and academic freedom. I hope that The Index will continue to investigate and share student perspectives on this unfortunate situation.

  4. B Williamssøn

    Like many pieces on this case, I find it concerning that you neglect to mention that a judge found no basis to conclude that the sexual encounters had been non-consensual based on evidence produced. Evidence which showed pressure for these encounters came from the accuser and persisted throughout the time of the alleged offences.

    And the verdict itself is disappointing in so far as any reasonable reading of the timeline and correspondence between the University and the involved parties shows a very evident bias which can only be attributed to gender or disdain.

    I feel it would be appropriate, firstly as a duty to inform your readers but further as a basic courtesy to a young man whose life has been potentially ruined out of, seemingly, jealousy and spite for you to clarify better in your article that there is no credible evidence of any assault and the university, despite its protests, singularly failed to follow it’s own policies in dealing with this complaint.

    Not least by taking punitive action against the accused without informing him, at all, about what he was accused of.

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