Federal judge dismisses former legislative employee’s suit over Capitol harassment investigations

A federal judge dismissed a $1.2 million lawsuit from the Oregon Legislature’s ousted equity officer, saying lawmakers didn’t retaliate when they released a memo about him in response to a records request.

Nate Monson worked as the Legislature’s acting legislative equity officer for just 64 days in spring 2021, filling a position created in 2019 in the wake of multiple sexual harassment scandals involving lawmakers. Since leaving, he has alleged he was forced to resign for trying to draw attention to rampant mismanagement of employee complaints and for alerting legislators and legislative staff to violations of federal, state and local discrimination laws. 

Monson first sued in Marion County Circuit Court in April 2022,  and his case was soon moved to federal district court in Eugene. Last month, District Court Judge Ann Aiken dismissed his case. The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported Aiken’s decision Friday. 

Monson sued the state and current and former lawmakers Floyd Prozanski, Chuck Thomsen, Julie Fahey and Ron Noble, as well as legislative human resources director Jessica Knieling. An earlier version of his complaint also named Gov. Tina Kotek and former Senate President Peter Courtney, who led the House and Senate during his tenure, and legislative counsel Dexter Johnson. 

He initially accused the lawmakers and legislative employees of retaliating against him by ignoring him, opening an investigation into his background and defaming him and violating his First Amendment free speech rights by trying to silence him. Nearly two years later, Monson narrowed his lawsuit to focus on just one claim: Knieling and the lawmakers discriminated against him after he left the Legislature by releasing a memo Knieling wrote about his employment history in response to public records requests. 

“The court concludes that because the release of the Knieling memo was required by Oregon public records law following a public records request, and because plaintiff was not entitled to notice of the release, there was no adverse action and it is unnecessary for the court to reach the question of causation,” Aiken wrote. 

Gossip-filled workplace

Monson joined the Legislature in April 2021, two years after  top lawmakers and Capitol staff had entered a binding legal agreement with the Bureau of Labor and Industries following a lengthy investigation into sexual misconduct and discrimination that spanned years. 

One component of that agreement was creating the legislative equity office, which for more than two years was run by an interim officer. Monson, who had previously worked in Iowa, was the first full-time legislative equity officer hired by the Legislature. 

His lawsuit said the Capitol was a dysfunctional and gossip-filled workplace and that Monson began raising concerns about the office’s prior mismanagement shortly after he arrived, including that law firms investigating reports of inappropriate behavior weren’t paid on time, which dragged out investigations, and that his predecessor didn’t maintain records of past and ongoing cases and instead handed him a Post-it note with some details. 

In response, his suit claimed, Knieling began scrutinizing his background. She found that Monson misrepresented himself as a former employee of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, despite never having worked for the organization and that he was fired in 2020 from Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit organization for LGBTQ students. Knieling submitted a memo to the Legislature’s Joint Conduct Committee, which summoned him to a meeting on June 9, 2021, to ask questions about his background. 

Less than a week later, on June 15, Monson resigned. That resignation prompted freelance journalist Dick Hughes to file a records request on June 29 asking for all materials related to Monson’s resignation, according to court documents. The following day, Monson reached out to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Dirk VanderHart to detail his complaints, resulting in an article about a week later that spelled out Monson’s concerns about the office. 

Shortly after publishing that article, OPB contacted Knieling asking for materials related to Monson’s résumé. Lawmakers on the legislative counsel committee released the memo Knieling drafted a week before Monson’s resignation. 

It took nearly two years after Monson’s ouster for the Legislature to hire a permanent employee to handle conduct complaints at the Capitol. Bor Yang, who previously led the Vermont Human Rights Commission, has been on the job for a little less than a year.  

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.