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Williams v. Hospital Service District of West Feliciana Parish

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

March 31, 2017

DR. MARIA S. WILLIAMS
v.
THE HOSPITAL SERVICE DISTRICT OF WEST FELICIANA PARISH, LOUISIANA

          RULING AND ORDER

          BRIAN A. JACKSON, CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25), filed by Defendants Hospital Service District of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, and Board of Commissioners of the Hospital Service District of West Feliciana Parish. Defendants seek summary judgment on the claims asserted by Plaintiff Maria S. Williams, which relate to the termination of her employment. Plaintiff filed a memorandum in opposition to the Motion, (see Doc. 29); Defendants filed a reply memorandum in support of the Motion, (see Doc. 37); and Plaintiff filed a sur-reply in opposition to the Motion, (see Doc. 39). On February 21, 2017, the Court held a hearing on the Motion. For the reasons explained herein, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 25) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         West Feliciana Parish Hospital (“Hospital”) provides certain medical services to the public through its Intensive Outpatient Care Program (“IOP”).[2] At the time of the events giving rise to this lawsuit, Life Phases Consulting, LLC - a private company that was owned by Sherry Banks (“Banks”) and Jill Elias (“Elias”) - oversaw the operations of the IOP. On July 16, 2013, Plaintiff was hired as the IOP's Program Director.

         Throughout the course of her employment as the IOP's Program Director, Plaintiff allegedly became aware of various workplace practices that violated state law. First, Plaintiff alleges that she observed Elias affix the name of Lynn Goudeaux (“Goudeaux”), a therapist, to a patient's progress report; Plaintiff asserts that Elias forged Goudeaux's signature so that the document appeared to have been signed by Goudeaux. Plaintiff subsequently reported the alleged forgery to the Louisiana State Board of Social Work Examiners. Second, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants engaged in a practice of entering initial billing codes that misrepresented the length of therapy sessions, thereby charging Medicaid and other medical assistance programs for therapy services that were not actually rendered to patients, which Plaintiff reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (See Doc. 29-2 at pp. 26-34; id. at p. 61, ll. 3-8). As a result of Plaintiff's complaints to Banks, Elias, and the CEO of the Hospital - Lee Chastant (“Chastant”) - regarding the billing practices, an audit was conducted of the IOP's billing records. (Doc. 29-3 at p. 87, ll. 2-6). Third, when Plaintiff confronted Elias regarding the possible abuse of an adult at a care facility and sought guidance from Elias regarding Plaintiff's mandatory duty to report such abuse under state law, Elias allegedly said that “she didn't think that it was a good idea for [Plaintiff] to report” the abuse because the Hospital had “just repaired [its] relationship[]” with the management of the facility at which the alleged abuse occurred. (Doc. 29-2 at p. 41, ll. 12-15). Plaintiff informed Banks, Elias, and Chastant on multiple occasions that she opposed these practices and alleged violations of state law. (Id. at p. 31, ll. 8-12). On July 3, 2014, Plaintiff informed the Hospital's Compliance Committee in writing of the workplace practices that she alleged violated state law. (See Doc. 29-3 at p. 21).

         On August 22, 2014, the Hospital's Compliance Officer - Janay Perkins (“Perkins”) - observed a man whom she did not recognize in Plaintiff's office.[3] Perki ns also observed Plaintiff utilize her office printer to print paperwork and later observed the man holding papers in his hand. (See Doc. 25-4 at p. 10, ll. 10-11). Perkins demanded that Plaintiff inform her of the identity of the man and the contents of the papers, but Plaintiff declined to provide Perkins with such information. After this incident, Plaintiff was placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation into whether Plaintiff had committed a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”) by conveying the paperwork to the unidentified man. Plaintiff then was terminated on October 23, 2014, after receiving a Separation Notice from Chastant. Plaintiff asserts that she was terminated because she opposed and reported the workplace practices that she alleges amounted to violations of state law.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record [-] including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, [and] interrogatory answers” - or by averring that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the presence of a genuine dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

         “[W]hen a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the adverse party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986) (quotation marks and footnote omitted). “This burden is not satisfied with some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (quotation marks and citations omitted). In determining whether the movant is entitled to summary judgment, the Court “view[s] facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant and draw[s] all reasonable inferences in her favor.” Coleman v. Hous. Indep. Sch. Dist., 113 F.3d 528, 533 (5th Cir. 1997).

         In sum, summary judgment is appropriate if, “after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, [the non-movant] fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment (1) on Plaintiff's claim under Louisiana Revised Statutes section 23:967 (“Louisiana Whistleblower Statute”) because Plaintiff cannot establish that she reported an actual violation of state law, as required by the statute; (2) on Plaintiff's state-law whistleblower claim because Plaintiff cannot rebut Defendants' proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination; and (3) on Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because Plaintiff's speech did not involve a matter of public concern. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court finds that summary judgment is not appropriate on Plaintiff's claim under the Louisiana Whistleblower Statute insofar as she premises that claim on a violation of Louisiana Revised Statutes section 14:403.2, nor is summary judgment appropriate on Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim.

         A. State-Law ...


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