Two key figures comment on a suite of lawsuits facing Pacific University
In November, The Pacific Index reported on a suite of lawsuits against Pacific University alleging wrongful termination of professors, phony Title IX investigations, and much more. In the two years since those original complaints, media coverage and court documents tell a story of seeming conflict of interest, personal histories unearthed, racked-up legal fees, and a fierce battle over evidence and documentation. The full consequences of the situation for Pacific likely won’t be known for years to come.
The Index spoke with attorney Robin DesCamp, representing around ten former professors and three open lawsuits and, on the other side of the matter, Pacific University’s General Counsel and Dean of the College of Business Jennifer Yruegas, who is additionally listed as a defendant in the lawsuits. Yruegas also formerly held the positions of VP of Human Resources and Associate Dean of the College of Business.
In DesCamp’s eyes, Yruegas is a criminal whose misconduct has caused untold damage to Pacific University and the lives of her victims. Yruegas denies wrongdoing, and considers the attacks against her to be the price she must pay for protecting students and moving Pacific University’s mission forward. Some of those attacks, though, have landed squarely, and the Oregon State Bar has opened an investigation into Yruegas’s conduct. Pacific University declined to comment beyond the comments provided by Yruegas.
Natural by Design Inc.
As the Willamette Week reported in August, Yruegas’s dealings in a weed farm are being used by DesCamp and a lawyer named Kevin M. Sali to discredit Yruegas. Sali is representing the plaintiff of a similar Title IX lawsuit called Peter Steele v. Abigail Masters, Pacific University.. Back in 2016, before Yruegas was hired by Pacific University, she gathered a group of investors to start a marijuana farm. The business was named Natural by Design Inc. (NBD), and Yruegas purchased a property in Saint Helens, Oregon with $210,000 from NBD’s investors, but Yruegas recorded the property in her and her husband’s own names.
Over the course of that year, investors deposited $580,000 into the NBD account. Yruegas claims that the business went south, citing bad weather, crop contamination and failure, and uncertainty regarding marijuana laws following former President Trump’s 2016 election. Text messages show that Yruegas told Rittenberg, her main investor, that she would be wiring the remaining money back to the investors in small increments after selling the property for $240,000. However, a statement from Yruegas’s lawyer claims that Yruegas ran into problems with wiring money to the investors, and decided instead “to make wage payments, reimburse cash outlays for expenses, and pay her management fee,” supposedly using up the last of the money from the business.
In 2018, Rittenberg and the other two investors sued Yruegas for $580,000 in an attempt to recoup some funds, and the lawsuit was settled for $150,000—half of which was paid for by the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund (PLF) which provides liability coverage for private Oregon attorneys. In a series of responses to the OSB complaint (more on this in a moment), Yruegas’s attorney defends this use of the PLF, as Rittenberg’s lawsuit alleged that Yruegas had committed malpractice of law. DesCamp wrote that PLF policy exclusions “should have precluded any coverage at all.” The settlement agreement also stipulated that “(c)laimants [Rittenberg et al] are not clients of Yruegas and withdraw any claim of a prior attorney-client relationship,” and “(c)laimants agree not to make, either directly or through counsel, any complaint to the Oregon State Bar relating or referring in any way to the conduct alleged in the Complaint.”
Oregon State Bar investigation
This brings us to the central question of Yruegas’s business dealings and their relevance to the suite of lawsuits represented by Sali and DesCamp. Yruegas claims that she was acting solely as CEO of Natural by Design, not as their legal counsel. However, Rittenberg and the investors asserted in their lawsuit that an attorney-client relationship did exist. In 2021, DesCamp filed a complaint with the Oregon State Bar against Yruegas, referring to Rittenberg’s lawsuit, but this initial complaint was dismissed without an investigation. However, Sali turned up new documents from NBD in an August 2022 declaration for Peter Steele v. Abigail Masters, Pacific University., which also implicates Yruegas. These documents include statements of the land sale, deposits and withdrawals from the NBD account, and emails and text messages between Rittenberg and Yruegas.
With these new documents, DesCamp and Sali jointly filed another complaint with the OSB that included details of the NBD situation in addition to allegations of “deceit and violations of the law” regarding Yruegas’s conduct as General Counsel at Pacific. The OSB has opened an investigation into Yruegas’s conduct that could result in her disbarment if sufficient misconduct and/or an attorney-client relationship is found to have existed between Yruegas and NBD’s investors.
Commenting on the OSB complaint to The Index, Yruegas added, “(j)ust to be clear, [DesCamp] has submitted almost 20 different complaints. She’s had all of the people—Paxton, Hamilton—they have all done multiple ones that, in actuality boil down to a claim of reverse discrimination.” She added that she has faith in the process of the Oregon State Bar.
DesCamp also told The Index, “Pacific University is paying [Yruegas’s] legal fees for the OSB investigation even though it’s on a matter that occurred before she was even hired there.”
Yruegas responded, “All of [DesCamp’s] complaints are centered around and swirl around the litigation, and her complaints are made in a way to be utilized in court as a mechanism to discredit or to—in some ways blackmail—because we’ve had it where she has been like, ‘I’m going to release XYZ unless you, you know, pay two million dollars.” She elaborated that with each new lawsuit, arbitration, or new client DesCamp took on, “in each one of those cases, there was some kind of ‘stick-em-up’—she may call it a settlement offer.”
Conflict of Interest
Yruegas, along with several other administrators, is named as a defendant alongside Pacific University in multiple of the wrongful termination lawsuits and is personally identified as having committed misconduct. Despite being named as a defendant, Yruegas has not recused herself from the lawsuit in her role as General Counsel.
“There are two huge conflicts of interest right now. Number one is that Yruegas shouldn’t be anywhere near these cases. Number two is that the University should not have joint representation by the same lawyers,” said DesCamp in a phone call with The Index.
In all of the lawsuits at question, Pacific University is fighting to keep many documents away from the professors and their attorneys, claiming attorney-client privilege, work-product doctrine, and FERPA protections. The disputed documents include a wide range of personnel files, Title IX investigation reports, primary evidence, and communications.
DesCamp said, “[Yruegas] is making designation decisions. . . Those decisions affect her personally and professionally because she committed misconduct that she is now part and parcel of trying to cover up. So those designations should be made only by independent counsel.”
When asked to comment on this, Yruegas responded, “It’s not about one person designating—it’s really about looking at the communications and do they fall under the attorney-client doctrine?” She continued, “Ultimately, it falls on outside counsel and the University, but we provide everything and then they are the ones who go through it.”
As for joint representation, Yruegas pointed to signed documents stating that the defendants, including Pacific University, currently have joint interests, and that “if a conflict of interest arises, the University then would have the ability to extricate themselves from joint counsel.”
Yruegas also said that, “It’s not just the University and Miller Nash. . . there’s a very interested third party insurance company [United Educators] who has made the determination that they’re not willing at this point to settle with Ms. DesCamp and the claims that she has brought forward.” She added that the insurance company also influences who should be jointly represented, and that Pacific has provided representation for all of the defendants of these lawsuits.
Dr. Richard Paxton v. Pacific University was, until recently, set to go to trial in February 2023. However, the Paxton trial has been postponed until June 2023. In a letter to the case’s Washington County Court judge, DesCamp describes how the judge ordered an in camera review, whereby Pacific’s Miller Nash LLP attorneys would provide the judge with the documents in their “Privilege Log” to ascertain whether they should be protected under attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine. The “Privilege Log” is, according to DesCamp, an “unprecedentedly long” 48-page spreadsheet of hundreds of documents that Pacific University claims are privileged. The letter states, “You indicated you had attempted to analyze them for privilege and work-product claims but given the lack of organization, duplicate documents, and other problems, you had not been able to conduct your review.” DesCamp concludes, “I cannot take the depositions needed to respond to that motion until I have all the documents to which my client is entitled.”
In an interview with The Index, Yruegas replied to this account of events by saying, “I don’t think it was necessarily about documents and a privilege log.” Yruegas countered that DesCamp “spends a lot of time deposing me, but really nobody else. . . If you’re gonna go into court, you need to get your depositions done. And we were ready to go on these cases every time they were put over.”
DesCamp jokingly describes herself as “a solo practitioner with a canine legal assistant,” and the reality is that Pacific and their jointly represented defendants have retained two Miller Nash attorneys for the Scholnick and Hamilton cases, and four attorneys for the Paxton cases, all of whom are backed up by the 140-attorney-strong Miller Nash law firm.
Pacific Appeals BOLI Fines
Pacific University has requested a hearing to contest the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI)’ “Notice of Intent to Assess Civil Penalties” totaling more than $843,000 in fines. In the appeal, Pacific University addressed the allegations from seven former professors on a person-by-person basis, outlining what types of documents have already been provided to the complainants and what types of requested documents they believe to be protected. One section of the appeal was dedicated to the defense of Pacific’s claims of attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine in general, concluding that “The University further believes that the Agency is overstepping its authority and jurisdiction and does not appreciate recent court and arbitrator rulings, as well as established Oregon law regarding the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine.” The appeal also took a stab at DesCamp’s efforts to push forward on all possible fronts: “Finally, the inclusion of language parroting the Complainants’ attorney’s commentary raises the further concern regarding the Agency’s impartiality. The University looks forward to presenting its case before a neutral factfinder.”
Yruegas explained that many of the documents requested by BOLI have already been turned over to DesCamp through the former professors’ litigation, but were placed under seal—meaning they are available to the complainants but not to the public because a judge found them to be privileged. She added that BOLI fines often start out as high as millions of dollars before being negotiated down to a few thousand. The dollar amount is particularly important, as Pacific’s insurance does not cover legal fees in this instance.
The BOLI fines accrued over time as Pacific continued to retain protected documents. The appeal comments, “Notably, the Agency waited months to issue the Notice after the University’s counsel and the Agency discussed the above-referenced matters, presumably to increase the number of daily violations and amount of civil penalties.”
How much these lawsuits will cost Pacific University might not be known for years to come. DesCamp says she has offered to settle the Paxton lawsuit and others multiple times. “I offered to settle this case for two years of his salary. . . This could have gone away for around $200,000 26 months ago. Instead, the University has paid many multiples of that amount not only on this case, but on the many others that fell in my lap directly because of my work on the Paxton matter.”
Lawsuit settlements are covered under Pacific University’s insurance. Regardless of whether the lawsuits are settled or receive a jury verdict, there is a possibility that Pacific’s insurance company could sue to recoup losses if they find intentional misconduct. DesCamp alleged in an email, “Now you can see why the conflict-of-interest Yruegas problem is so obvious. She made the decision not to settle the Paxton case because she was indignant that someone might challenge her years-long pattern of illegal and immoral terminations that violate university policy.”
The cost and efficiency of Pacific’s defense attorneys from Miller Nash will also be a factor. DesCamp referred to a decision by Pacific and Miller Nash in the Peter Steele v. Abigail Masters, Pacific University. case that “shows them fighting attorney Kevin Sali’s hourly rate related to his motion to compel documents. Sali’s rate is $500/hour, over one hundred less than university counsel at Miller Nash. I can’t tell you how insane this is: the losing side charged their client a lot more money, and when the judge is about to order them to pay fees, the losing side claims the winning side’s hourly rate is too high.” She asks, “Do you think spending $20,000, or even half that, or half that again, is worth risking a loss on an obvious issue, or pursuing a win that even if you win, your legal fees for the win dwarf your ‘win?’”
Red Herrings or a Pattern of Misconduct?
DesCamp’s strategy clearly focuses on Yruegas’s moral character and history. In the two-plus years that these lawsuits have been ongoing, she has dug up as much dirt as she can on Yruegas to demonstrate that Pacific’s General Counsel leaves a path of destruction in her wake. Some of the tangential allegations that DesCamp has presented to The Index include:
- The Natural by Design lawsuit and OSB investigation
- The claim that Yruegas was working full-time at a firm called GridWorks while also at Pacific. DesCamp alleges Yruegas quit this job by telling them she had cancer. Yruegas said that while DesCamp informed Pacific of the moonlighting, there was no disciplinary action because Pacific does not have a moonlighting policy and was aware of Yruegas’s consulting with GridWorks.
- That “Yruegas cheated her former employer Viewpoint by helping a senior member of their executive team create a new company on Viewpoint’s dime and time.”
- That Yruegas steered a Pacific contract towards a company called BlueVolt, headed by Yruegas’s former business associate from ViewPoint and which hired both Yruegas’s husband and son.
- A 2010 case wherein Yruegas’s husband Michael Hopkins was found to have had sexual relationships with his chiropractic patients, one of whom Yruegas punched, and was “criminally charged with harassment.”
The relevance—and truth—to the Pacific HR lawsuits is a matter of debate. At the end of the day, the lawsuits in question go before arbitrators and juries on their own merits.
A Matter of Framing
The lawsuits represented by DesCamp have garnered local and national media coverage because they engage an ongoing nationwide reckoning. Who should have the privilege of teaching the next generation? If they are accused of misconduct, will due process be followed in the investigations of their actions? DesCamp’s conclusion is that Pacific University is purging itself of older, white, male professors—and this is reflected by the three ongoing lawsuits alleging wrongful termination. It should also be noted that more than half of the seven BOLI complainants are women, and there is another lawsuit from a female former professor alleging wrongful termination (and implicating Yruegas) currently ongoing in the Oregon District Court.
In The Index’s interview with Yruegas, her focus was on protecting students and making sure that student complaints against professors are investigated and acted upon. Yruegas spoke about how these lawsuits reflect a cultural and institutional transformation. She reflected on the recent creation of a VP for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the promotion of a community where people feel safe reporting misconduct. “I feel like no matter where I’m at, I will be able to look back and feel like I had played a part in that, and that I didn’t sweep anything under the rug. And sometimes you’ve got to sacrifice for those changes, and this is the sacrifice that I have to make for Pacific to live up to the promise of its mission.”
Yruegas sought to recenter the media narrative surrounding these lawsuits, saying, “What’s always lost in all of the discussions is that these were initiated by people who considered themselves to be victimized by individuals, and some of those are students and some of those are faculty and staff.” She continued, “I am okay getting the punches because if I wasn’t the one getting them, it would be the students who were incredibly brave and the faculty and staff who came forward and already, you know, did their part for Pacific, and trying to change a culture—and the pendulum is finally swinging.”
Documents from Pacific’s recent Motion for Summary Judgement also emphasize the need to protect student complainants. The charges that were brought against Paxton at the 2021 UPC hearing (through which he was officially dismissed) include “Violating the university’s no-contact order by contacting a student complainant through your attorney [Ms. DesCamp],” “Divulging students’ personally identifiable information to the media without the students’ or University’s consent,” and “Through your attorney, confusing student witnesses about the Title IX process.” They also detail how DesCamp “threatened one student who complained with a deposition” and “sent that demand to an email account that the student-complainant shared with coworkers, and the coworkers saw it first.”
Asked to comment on these allegations, DesCamp responded, “I don’t recall ever uttering the name of a student to the media. However, Title IX allegations are not confidential, nor are they protected by FERPA. I am under no obligation to keep these names private, and the university knows it.”
The Jury Will Decide
So far, only one of the lawsuits in question has settled—Mejia v. Pacific University. The Scholnick lawsuit recently returned to court following arbitration, and the other three lawsuits will proceed to trial unless they settle quite late in the game. No matter which side wins, it is evident that people have been hurt. Careers have been jeopardized or destroyed. Students’ education has been disrupted.
DesCamp requested to correct the record on one matter in particular for Kelly Paxton, the late Dr. Paxton’s widow, as it was one of the most personally impactful allegations that came against him. DesCamp said, “It was so hurtful to him as a Jewish man that they took a story about him speaking with pride about being descended from a Jewish man who helped fund the Revolutionary War.” Documents summarizing the UPC hearing on Dr. Paxton’s dismissal show that one Jewish student found the comment offensive. Cases such as these reinforce the importance of context, clear communication, and safe conflict resolution in universities.
The complaints as a whole reinforce the importance of systems by which students who feel offended, threatened, hurt, or harassed can safely make complaints and have them investigated objectively, respectfully, and with clear communication between all parties.
Trial Dates, as reported on January 5
Hamilton v. Pacific University, April 26
Paxton v. Pacific University, June 13
Peter Steele v. Abigail Masters, Pacific University, August 8
Scholnick v. Pacific University, September 19
— Lane Johnson