Not long after she stopped for gas, Rose Wakefield wondered why no one was filling up her car.
“I don’t serve Black people,” said the man, according to a lawsuit filed by Wakefield. The man, identified in records as 23-year-old Nigel Powers, then allegedly laughed at the 63-year-old Wakefield as she drove away. Powers is White.
Nearly three years after the alleged incident, a jury concluded this week that Wakefield was racially discriminated against and awarded her $1 million in total damages. On Monday, a jury in Multnomah County Circuit Court awarded $450,000 to Wakefield for discrimination and ordered Jacksons Food Store and PacWest Energy, the local gas station operator, to pay $330,000 and $220,000 in damages, respectively.
“I wasn’t served. I was actually humiliated and disrespected,” Wakefield told KGW in Portland, Ore. “It was like, ‘What world am I living in?’ This is not supposed to go down like that. It was a terrible, terrible confrontation between me and this guy.”
Greg Kafoury, one of the attorneys representing Wakefield, told The Washington Post that he pushed for a large damages sum because a $1 million award forced the defendants to explain how the situation was handled. Kafoury accused the defendants of not recording complaint calls made by Wakefield after the incident, and alleged that a voice mail she left was erased.
“The message the jury sent is that big corporations should take big racist complaints seriously,” Jason Kafoury, Greg Kafoury’s son and another attorney representing Wakefield, told The Post. “They need to document them and investigate them and not sweep them under the rug. If they don’t do that, juries are going to make them pay — and that’s what this one did.”
Wakefield did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday. Attempts to reach Powers were unsuccessful. Maurice Jenkins, one of the defense attorneys in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cory Jackson, president of Jacksons Food Stores, told The Post in a statement that the company has “a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind,” and provides multiple trainings a year for employees to give “a safe shopping experience for all people.” But Jackson said the company does not agree with the ruling in Wakefield’s case.
“After carefully reviewing all facts and evidence, including video surveillance, we chose to take this matter to trial because we were comfortable based on our knowledge that the service-related concern actually reported by the customer was investigated and promptly addressed,” Jackson said. “As such, we respectfully disagree with the jury’s ruling because our knowledge does not align with the verdict.”
On March 12, 2020, Wakefield, a retinal imagist at a Veterans Affairs clinic, was driving back to work from her lunch break when she pulled into the gas station at Jacksons Food Store in Beaverton, about 11 miles west of downtown Portland. Oregon is one of two states, along with New Jersey, where it’s illegal for drivers to pump their own gas, so they have to be served by attendants.
Wakefield realized that she was being ignored by the attendant when a White couple pulled behind her in their car and were serviced first, despite arriving after Wakefield, the complaint says. The White couple asked Powers why he was servicing them first, but the attendant ignored their question, the complaint says. The same thing happened when another White customer pulled in while Wakefield was still waiting.
“Nigel ignored the plaintiff and walked to the new car and started pumping their gas,” the lawsuit reads.
When she finally got his attention and asked why she wasn’t being serviced, he replied, “I’ll get to you when I feel like it,” court records show.
At that point, Wakefield walked into the store and asked to speak to the manager. She voiced her frustration to the manager and the store clerk.
“He’s ignoring me and he keeps going to somebody else,” Wakefield told the clerk, according to surveillance footage obtained by The Post.
As Wakefield and the store clerk approached the car, Powers approached them and the vehicle, Greg Kafoury said.
“Rose holds out her arms and says, ‘Don’t come any closer, stay away from my car,’” Kafoury told The Post.
Wakefield was about to pull out of the parking lot when she decided to confront Powers one more time about why he didn’t give her any service, asking, “Why did you treat me this way?” That’s when he laughed at her and told her he didn’t “serve Black people,” according to the complaint.
Kafoury said Wakefield immediately called the phone number for a corporate hotline that the clerk gave her to report the incident. Phone records obtained by The Post confirm that Wakefield called the number given to her. But Kafoury argued that the audio recordings of Wakefield’s complaint calls were not preserved, and that the person recording the call summarized the woman’s complaint in one paragraph — and excluded Powers allegedly saying he did not serve Black people.
Records show that Powers was written up on March 12, 2020. But he was not written up for his alleged discrimination. Instead, Powers violated the company’s “first in, first out” rule when it comes to serving customers, according to company records. After he was written up multiple times for looking at his phone too much on the job, Powers was fired about a month later, Kafoury said.
In the months that followed, Wakefield would cry or shake any time the incident was brought up, her attorneys said. She filed her lawsuit in October 2020, saying in the complaint that she continued to “suffer from feelings of racial stigmatization, humiliation and anger.”
“It is a nightmare,” she told KGW.
During the four-day civil trial, the Kafourys said their goal was to show how Jacksons Food Stores and PacWest Energy were not transparent in how they handled Wakefield’s case, and the damage that’s come from the encounter. Jason Kafoury reflected on how one of Wakefield’s friends gave arguably the most powerful testimony during the trial, telling the jury how Wakefield was visibly rattled, even after they prayed together the night of the incident.
“She said, ‘She’s always good after we pray. But that night, she wasn’t good,’” Jason Kafoury said. “She said, ‘I lost my friend. I lost my Rose.’”
While the jury’s verdict this week was a relief for Wakefield, her attorneys say it’s only the latest incident of discrimination in her life. Greg Kafoury noted how Wakefield grew up in Portland in the 1970s and was among the first group of Black students to be bused to Jackson High School as part of a one-way desegregation program.
Wakefield stressed to local media that she’s happy that the incident is behind her, but that it’s something she’s going to be carrying with her for the rest of her life.
“I [don’t] want this to happen to anyone else,” she said. “It was a terrible scene and no one should have to go through anything like that.”