Attorneys representing UO in Title IX suit cleared of misconduct allegations
**Warning: some of the content in this story could be triggering to survivors of sexual assault.**
A June 18 letter from the Oregon State Bar cleared two University of Oregon attorneys, Samantha Hill and Douglas Park, of misconduct allegations. The letter was addressed to university Health Center employee, Jennifer Morlok, who had “raised concerns” about the way university attorneys handled a student’s counseling records.
Park and Hill are the attorneys representing the UO in an ongoing lawsuit filed by a student in January. In the suit, the plaintiff, “Jane Doe,” said she was denied rights guaranteed by Title IX when she was allegedly gang raped in March 2014 by three former members of the UO men’s basketball team. Though the suit doesn’t specify a dollar amount, it asks for the reimbursement of tuition and costs associated with getting care for the “severe mental anguish” she suffered after the assault.
The suit also claimed that the university attorneys had violated the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act, also known as FERPA, when they requested the counseling records of the plaintiff from Health Center employees without her explicit permission.
The OSB letter, written by Assistant General Counsel Troy Wood, identifies Morlok as the therapist that the student sought care from at the Health Center. She, along with Health Center colleague Karen Stokes, openly criticized the retrieval of the student’s records. The university and the OSB letter maintain that the records, delivered to the attorneys in sealed envelopes, were never opened.
One year after the alleged rape occurred, UO Provost Frances Bronet announced in March 2015 that the records had been returned.
Despite the university’s retreat, Wood wrote to Morlok that “the evidence is insufficient to support a conclusion that it was obviously illegal or fraudulent for the university’s lawyers to take custody of the UCTC (university-operated counseling center) file.”
Under most circumstances (outside of a college or university-operated facility), the student’s records would have been protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, a piece of federal legislation passed in 1996 which protects the confidentiality of medical records.
But since the Health Center is affiliated with the university, it was operating under FEPRA — which has its own set of rules.
FERPA allows the disclosure of records without the student’s permission if they are related to an ongoing suit against the institution in question. Since the student is seeking reimbursement for damages caused by emotional distress, Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center says it was “probably” within legal boundaries for the attorneys to have requested the records.
But FERPA hasn’t stopped the Oregon legislature from taking matters into its own hands. Oregon House Bill 3476, which passed unanimously, protects communications between sexual assault survivors and their advocates and makes records pertaining to these communications impermissible in Oregon courtrooms without the consent of the survivor.
As for the OSB letter, “the university is pleased” with the decision, a UO spokesman said in a statement Thursday to The Oregonian. Morlok can appeal to the Bar’s General Council for a final decision.
Morlok has also brought forward complaints about four other UO psychologists, including the vice president for student life Robin Holmes, and the clinic director Shelley Kerr. The Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners is currently investigating those complaints.
Noah McGraw also contributed to this report.
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