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Register-Guard Places Employees on Administrative Leave After Lawsuit

In the wake of reporter Serena Markstrom Nugent’s civil lawsuit against The Register-Guard for firing her after she checked emails while on pregnancy disability leave, it appears that the R-G is considering cutting some employees that were involved in the case.

EW was told by several credible sources that Eugene Newspaper Guild union co-president Randi Bjornstad and programmers Joe Clark and Horst Lueck, both in information systems, have been placed on administrative leave. 

Bjornstad in her position as union president supported Markstrom Nugent and gave her advice on deleting emails and other issues and testified during the trial.

A jury heard arguments in Lane County Circuit Court for six days starting Aug. 23; however, Judge Josephine Mooney dismissed the case on Aug. 31 based on Markstrom Nugent having deleted emails, which Mooney called destruction of evidence, also known as spoliation.

According to court documents, when Markstrom Nugent was unable to access her email from home while on leave, Clark reset her username and password. In her email to Clark, Markstrom Nugent said she wanted to save emails for “personal reflection” on her career.

Also in the court documents, Markstrom Nugent refers to getting advice from Lueck on exporting her email account.

Markstrom Nugent, a longtime R-G entertainment writer, was suddenly switched to a hard news beat in 2012. In previous interviews she told EW that three weeks after announcing she was pregnant, she was told she needed coaching on her writing. The R-G then set up a performance improvement plan, a tactic that has been used by other news agencies to try to get rid of older, higher-paid journalists. 

In the newspaper’s first story on the trial, it misspelled the judge’s name as Moody. The error has since been fixed online.

Markstrom Nugent filed a lawsuit in August 2015 and, according to her complaint, editor Ilene Aleshire told Markstrom that she could not “do any work, including checking emails and voicemails,” while she was on disability leave. However, Markstrom’s complaint says she understood this to mean that she could not work — which might include checking work-related emails and voicemails. “She did not understand this to be a total prohibition against accessing her email account for personal matters.” 

Markstrom Nugent was seeking $125,000 in non-economic losses as well as back pay from the day she was fired, March 24, 2014, until Aug. 23.

If employees are fired, this won’t be the first time the R-G has severed relationships with those who supported Markstrom Nugent. When she was fired, former R-G arts writer Bob Keefer rounded up support for a well-wishing for the pregnant journalist. Keefer, who now runs a popular art blog, Eugene Art Talk, was freelancing for the R-G. He was told, “We won’t be needing your freelance services anymore.” 

Wendy Baker, the R-G’s human resources director and an attorney, told the paper that “some will say the case was dismissed on a technicality.”

EW asked Baker for comment and confirmation on Bjornstad, Lueck and Clark’s administrative leave as well as comment on the lawsuit. She declined to comment. 

Update: As noted in previous coverage, Editor Camilla Mortensen and Markstrom Nugent hang out sometimes and are even friends.