SALEM, Ore. (CN) — A deposed CEO can press his case that he told his female predecessor a story about milking “goat teats” in a cheese-making class, but never used “the word tits,” whether about “women, goats or anything else,” the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled.
John Plotkin became chief executive officer of State Accident Insurance Fund Corp., which provides workers’ compensation insurance, in February 2014. His tenure lasted only three months.
Plotkin was on a business trip with outgoing CEO Brenda Rocklin during the one-month transition period. He told her a story about a cheese-making class he was taking with his wife. Rocklin found the story offensive, and Plotkin was fired.
Citing Plotkin’s original lawsuit against the insurance fund, the appeals court wrote: “He [Plotkin] was aware that Rocklin grew up in an Idaho ranching community and did not anticipate that she would be offended by discussion related to milking goats. Rocklin deliberately described the comment as one about women’s breasts to create the false and harmful impression that Plotkin had engaged in sexual harassment.”
During the brief process that resulted in his firing, Plotkin said, he “had ‘no idea’ what was going on,” Judge Scott Shorr wrote for the Court of Appeals in the Sept. 8 reversal and remand.
According to the court’s summary of the case, SAIF vice president of operations and human resources Ryan Fleming told Rocklin in April 2014 that employees had complained about his “inappropriate comments.” Fleming wrote in notes about his conversation with Plotkin that Plotkin had “talked about a woman’s ‘tits’ during the business trip,” according to the appeals court.
Fleming and board chairwoman Catherine Travis then called Plotkin at his home and said the board had voted to terminate him. They asked for his resignation.
When Plotkin asked why, Travis responded that he had “allegedly engaged in actions that could trigger claims based upon ‘protected class status.'”
Plotkin refused to resign, so SAIF fired him. In the aftermath, Plotkin says, several employees complained that Fleming’s reporting of events was inaccurate and false.
Plotkin claimed that SAIF board member Chris Davie had “coordinated the messaging” with Fleming and that the two had orchestrated his firing. He sued Rocklin for intentional interference, claiming her involvement led to his dismissal.
Rocklin sought dismissal in under the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law. The trial court granted dismissal because the speech was “under consideration by an executive agency” and “on a matter of public interest.”
The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, agreeing that though the case was proper for an anti-SLAPP motion, Rocklin failed to show a probability that she would prevail.
“Although plaintiff and defendant dispute what plaintiff actually said during the goat-milking conversation, under our standard of review, we must accept plaintiff’s declaration that his remarks were limited to goat milking and did not extend to human anatomy,” Shorr wrote.
He added that Rocklin had spoken to Travis, and “it can at least be inferred that defendant generally confirmed some inappropriate comment had been made to her.”
Shorr noted he was deciding whether Plotkin had made a prima facie case, not whether he would succeed on the merits.
“Indeed, a reasonable juror could fully credit defendant’s evidence and find that defendant did not misrepresent any facts to SAIF regarding plaintiff’s statements, or find that any claimed misrepresentation was not a cause of plaintiff’s termination,” Shorr wrote.
Attorneys from both sides did not respond immediately to email requests for comment.
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