At a moment when presidential politics have led to a national discussion about sexual assault last week’s news of a plea deal in an especially shocking case in Forest Grove was eye-catching. According to a report in The Oregonian the owner of a retirement home in that community received a two-day jail sentence and five years of probation after pleading “guilty in Washington County Court to 11 counts of third-degree sex abuse and one count of attempted third-degree sex abuse. More than two dozen other charges, including first-degree sex abuse, second-degree sex abuse, third-degree sex abuse and first-degree burglary were dropped as part of the plea deal.”
According to the newspaper the accused, a 73-year-old man, routinely groped women under his care and used his position as the home’s owner to press himself on his female employees. The victims ranged in age from their 30s to their 80s. The newspaper adds that the plea agreement was reached with the cooperation of the victims. “Nearly all the women said they wanted to avoid a trial, which would be a lengthy and humiliating process for them,” the newspaper notes, quoting a Washington County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson.
Two legal points stand out here, one shocking and the other offering some relief. The first is the negotiation of the charges down from first-degree sexual assault to third-degree. This is a significant difference. First-Degree sexual assault (ORS 163.427) is a Class B felony, meaning that each count could lead to up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Third-degree sexual abuse (ORS 163.415) is a Class A misdemeanor, which makes the maximum fine $6250 and the maximum jail time one year. Without wanting to second-guess a criminal prosecution decision that reportedly involved input from the victims, it has to be said that a mere two days in jail and, reportedly, no fine, seems like far less than prosecutors might have gone for, even under the reduced charges.
The second point is that despite the shockingly light criminal sentence in this case the victims and their loved ones still have important legal avenues open to them in civil court. ORS 124.100 (see link below) offers important remedies to anyone “who suffers injury damage or death by reason of physical abuse or financial abuse.” The liability encompasses both people who caused the abuse and those who allowed it to happen by action or inaction. Unlike the more narrowly written laws dealing specifically with nursing facilities (which focus mostly on the fines that can be assessed by different state agencies), ORS 124.100 allows vulnerable persons who have been abused to receive three times the full value of both economic and non-economic damages that they have suffered, in addition to attorney’s fees (and, if relevant, fees for a guardian or custodian).
As a Portland lawyer who wants to protect vulnerable persons and hold abusers to account I can’t stress enough how important this law is. It gives Oregonians the legal tools they need to hold caregivers who have abused their trust accountable. As the Forest Grove case develops I will be interested to see whether any of the victims pursue the civil remedies that are clearly available to them under Oregon law. At a moment when all Americans are more aware than usual of sexual abuse and how wide-spread it remains in our society it would be both sad, and, for the future, chilling, if the victims in this case do not receive the justice they deserve.