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Bend dentist denies charges, will fight $350K penalty

By Matt McDonald
Published On: Oct 04 2012 05:46:46 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 06 2012 01:05:04 AM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Matt McDonald talked to state labor commissioner who awarded $347,000 to former dental assistant, and to the woman he denies ordering to attend Scientology symposium.

BEND, Ore. -

Scientology has often been surrounded by controversy, often involving movie stars. But the latest attention-grabbing legal fight focuses on a Bend dentist's alleged dictate that an employee attend a Scientology-affiliated symposium.

"The ultimatum that he gave me, to go to this symposium, sit down and listen to him speak to me about it, or it was my resignation if I left the room," said the former dental assistant for Dr. Andrew Engel. She agreed to talk to NewsChannel 21 by phone on Friday, if we did not use her name.

Refusing to go, she says she was badgered by her boss.

"It wasn't an easy decision for me to make, to walk away from my job," she said. "Unemployment was very high at the time, and I was the only full-time employee in my family."

On her last day, she says she told Engel she was filing a complaint with the state.

Oregon Labor and Industries Commissioner Brad Avakian said Thursday he has ordered Engel and his dental practice to pay nearly $350,000 in damages to the former employee who fled her job when ordered to attend a three-day Scientology-affiliated symposium or be fired.

Engel, whose Bend practice is AWE Dental Spa, issued a brief statement Friday through Portland attorney Michael Gordon, who said they will appeal the state labor commissioner's decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals:

"The decision from BOLI is erroneous, unsupported by the facts and contrary to Oregon law.  This employee was never discriminated against.   Dr. Engel and his office will appeal this erroneous ruling and continue professionally treating its patients as it always has."

Besides lost wages and health benefits, the damages include moving expenses after the complainant had to move out of state to find work, as well as emotional distress damages associated with the workplace harassment and complainant’s separation from her teenage daughter as she pursued alternate employment.

“Oregon workers deserve to feel safe on the job, secure from an employer’s pressure to do something that conflicts with their religious beliefs,” said Avakian.  “When an employee asks for an accommodation of their religious beliefs, there needs to be a real discussion about accommodation—not a ‘my way or the highway’ dismissal by the employer.” 

In investigating and prosecuting this case, Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) said it found that Engel badgered the dental hygienist, now working in East Texas, for several days to convince her to attend the required training with her co-workers, repeatedly brushing aside concerns that Scientology conflicted with her Christian religious beliefs and ignoring a specific accommodation request for an alternative, non-religious training opportunity.

“Oregonians expect, and deserve, an agency that will support local employers who want to do right by their workers,” Avakian said.  “Right along with that, Oregonians rightly expect that an employer who is hounding a worker to attend a religion-based training conference, to the point that she quits a good job to get away from that environment, is going to be held accountable for their actions.”

Avakian said he imposed a much higher damage award than the $80,000 recommended by the agency's prosecutor, the largest by BOLI in recent history.

The sum includes moving expenses to Texas and a large payment for emotional distress for the harassment, and for a key impact on the dental assistant's personal life.

"She had to separate from her daughter and move to Texas to find work," Avakian said. "And in my opinion, that warranted the $347,000 order."

The woman said she had no idea such a sum would be ordered -- or any at all.

"I wasn't expecting that, nor did I ask for that," she said. "Actually, I didn't ask for any monetary amount."

BOLI called the order commensurate with what a jury verdict would see in a similar case. However, the victim also was advised she's unlikely to see any of that money for years -- if at all.

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