Although he has been out of office for over a year, former Portland Mayor Sam Adams’s first few days as the city’s chief executive, in 2009, continue to create reverberations in Oregon law.
In February of this year, the Oregon Court of Appeals released its opinion in Nkrumah v. City of Portland. The case stems from the brief tenure of Wade Nkrumah as Adams’s communications director during the former mayor’s tumultuous transition into office in late 2008 and early 2009. A few weeks after his inauguration on January 1, 2009, Adams admitted that in 2005, he had started a relationship with Beau Breedlove, a former legislative intern, while Breedlove was still 17. (Adams maintained that nothing unlawful happened, as the relationship did not become sexual until after Breedlove reached the age of consent.)
Nkrumah quit his job as communications director on January 26, 2009, but alleged in court that when he did so, it was the result of an unlawful “wrongful discharge” under Oregon law. In most circumstances, employment in Oregon (and the rest of the United States) is “at-will” meaning that an employee can quit or be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. There are several exceptions to this general rule, though, including the provisions in both state and federal law that make it unlawful for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected classification, such as race, religion, or sex.
Oregon also protects employees from a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. That means a person has a valid claim against an employer if she is fired for: “(1) ‘exercising a job-related right that reflects an important public policy (such as filing a workers’ compensation claim)’ or (2) ‘fulfilling an important public duty (such as serving on a jury).'” Nkrumah, 261 Or. App. 365, 370-71 (2014). Nkrumah argued that Adams was untruthful with him about the circumstances of the former mayor’s relationship with Breedlove, and that this put him in the position of having to communicate misinformation to the media, in violation of “societal values that are expressly incorporated into the City’s Code, state statutes, common law, and state and federal constitutional principles compelling public officials to deal honestly and truthfully with the public.” Id. at 370 (quoting Nkrumah’s complaint).
In other words, Nkrumah argued that he had a duty to be honest with the media and the public, that Adams placed him in a position where he could not be, and that he therefore had no reasonable option but to resign. The Court of Appeals, however, agreed with the lower court in finding that Nkrumah could not produce enough evidence to support a claim against the City, in part because he resigned before ever actually being forced to lie to the press. As the court wrote:
Although the evidence establishes that [Nkrumah] may have twice been told things about the mayor’s relationship with Breedlove that turned out to be untrue, there is no evidence that plaintiff was asked to provide that false information to the public.
Id. at 375.
In sum, the case reaffirms the general rule of at-will employment. Had the facts been slightly different—for example, had Nkrumah continued on for a short while and then been forced to actually spread false information, choosing to resign instead—the outcome of the case might have been different. But it’s hard to disagree with the general principle he argued: being honest with the press and public should be an important, protected principle in public workplaces.