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Gartman v. Housing Authority of Jefferson Parish

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

September 20, 2018

ELIZABETH GARTMAN
v.
HOUSING AUTHORITY OF JEFFERSON PARISH

         SECTION "F"

          ORDER AND REASONS

          MARTIN L. C. FELDMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is the plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment that HAJP: (1) terminated her in violation of the employment agreement, (2) failed to compensate her for her accrued, unused vacation and sick time as required by the agreement, (3) owes her compensatory pay, and (4) is subject to statutory penalties and attorneys' fees pursuant to La. R.S. § 23:632. For the following reasons, the plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment is GRANTED in part, as to her claims for vacation and sick time, statutory penalty wages, and reasonable attorneys' fees, and DENIED in part, as to her claims for improper termination and compensatory pay.

         Background

         This lawsuit arises out of the termination of a long-term employee of the Housing Authority of Jefferson Parish (“HAJP”).

         HAJP is a public body that provides housing assistance to low income residents in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana through the administration of various programs. On June 2, 2009, HAJP hired Elizabeth Gartman to serve as its Office Manager. Upon the expiration of Gartman's initial employment agreement, Gartman and HAJP executed another employment agreement with a term extending from June 2, 2012 through June 2, 2017. Article 12.01(b) of this agreement provides that “[t]he Office Manager shall be an at-will employee, and may be terminated with or without cause, with or without notice by the Executive Director.” Moreover, Article 7.02 stipulates that, “[u]pon voluntary resignation or termination, the Office Manager shall be compensated for all accrued unused vacation and sick leave without restriction or penalty, with a 30 day notice, according to Civil Service guidelines.” As of April 2016, Gartman's contractual rate of pay was $33.15 per hour.

         In early 2016, HAJP did not to renew its employment contract with the Executive Director. Gartman was appointed Acting/Interim Executive Director by a resolution of the Board of Commissioners on April 12, 2016. Although this appointment was intended to last for ninety days, it was extended indefinitely until a permanent Executive Director was hired. Indeed, Gartman retained this role for the remainder of her tenure with HAJP, which came to an end on February 21, 2017 when the Board of Commissioners terminated her employment. At the time of Gartman's termination, she had accumulated 463.73 hours of unused vacation time and 550.24 hours of sick time.

         Following her termination, Gartman's attorney sent demand letters via email to two members of the Board on March 15, 2017, and to HAJP's General Counsel on April 12, 2017, demanding compensation allegedly due under her employment agreement for the full term of the contract. Specifically, the letters sought $19, 359.60 in unpaid wages from the date of her termination through the expiration of date of the contract, $33, 613.11 worth of accumulated vacation and sick time, the value of other employment-related benefits through the end of the employment agreement, statutory penalty wages and attorneys' fees, and other employment related sums.

         Then, on November 13, 2017, Gartman brought this lawsuit against HAJP, alleging that she was retaliated against in violation of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h), and in violation of her federal due process rights.[1] She also alleged several claims under state law, including breach of the employment agreement, slander and defamation, detrimental reliance, intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional infliction of emotion distress in the workplace, improper termination of benefits, and unfair trade practices.

         Specifically, Gartman's complaint submits that because the employment agreement states that her employment could be terminated only by the Executive Director of HAJP, by terminating her employment by the HAJP Board of Commissioners on February 21, 2017, prior to the agreement's end date of June 2, 2017, HAJP breached the agreement. Accordingly, Gartman alleges that HAJP owes her $19, 359.60 in unpaid wages for the period between her termination on February 21, 2017 and the expiration of the agreement on June 2, 2017, as well as the value of other employment-related benefits to which she was allegedly entitled. Gartman further contends that because HAJP failed to pay her for the 463.73 hours of unused vacation time and 550.24 hours of unused sick time that she had accumulated as of her termination in contravention of the agreement, HAJP owes her $33, 613.11 for the value of her accrued vacation and sick time.[2] Moreover, she seeks $49, 725 in compensatory pay that she allegedly accumulated during her employment. Finally, Gartman asserts that because she was not compensated for her accrued, unused vacation and sick time within 15 days of her termination, she is entitled to statutory penalty wages pursuant to La. R.S. § 23:632, and since written demand for this claim was made to HAJP more than three days prior to the filing of this suit, she is entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys' fees.

         Gartman now moves for partial summary judgment on her claims that HAJP: (1) terminated her in violation of the employment agreement, (2) failed to compensate her for her accrued, unused vacation and sick time as required by the agreement, (3) owes her compensatory pay, and (4) is liable for statutory penalty wages and reasonable attorneys' fees pursuant to La. R.S. § 23:632.

         I.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 instructs that summary judgment is proper if the record discloses no genuine dispute as to any material fact such that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. No. genuine dispute of fact exists if the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A genuine dispute of fact exists only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The mere argued existence of a factual dispute does not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion. See id. In this regard, the non-moving party must do more than simply deny the allegations raised by the moving party. See Donaghey v. Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., 974 F.2d 646, 649 (5th Cir. 1992). Rather, he must come forward with competent evidence, such as affidavits or depositions, to buttress his claims. Id. Hearsay evidence and unsworn documents that cannot be presented in a form that would be admissible in evidence at trial do not qualify as competent opposing evidence. Martin v. John W. Stone Oil Distrib., Inc., 819 F.2d 547, 549 (5th Cir. 1987); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). "[T]he nonmoving party cannot defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or only a scintilla of evidence." Hathaway v. Bazany, 507 F.3d 312, 319 (5th Cir. 2007)(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Ultimately, "[i]f the evidence is merely colorable . . . or is not significantly probative," summary judgment is appropriate. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted); King v. Dogan, 31 F.3d 344, 346 (5th Cir. 1994) (“Unauthenticated documents are improper as summary judgment evidence.”).

         II.

         Gartman seeks partial summary judgment that HAJP breached the employment agreement in the following two ways: (1) terminating her by the Board of Commissioners, rather than the Executive Director, and (2) failing to compensate her for her accrued, unused vacation and sick time upon her termination.

         Louisiana law provides that “the essential elements of a breach of contract claim are the existence of a contract, the party's breach thereof, and resulting damages. The party claiming the rights under the contract bears the burden of proof.” 1100 S. Jefferson Davis Parkway, LLC v. Williams, 2014-1326 (La.App. 4 Cir. 5/20/15); 165 So.3d 1211, 1216. Accordingly, to succeed on each aforementioned claim, Gartman must show that there has been a breach of the terms of her employment agreement.

         A.

         Gartman first seeks partial summary judgment that HAJP breached the employment agreement by terminating her by the Board of Commissioners, rather than the Executive Director. As such, the Court turns to Article 12.01(b), the relevant provision of the agreement regarding termination. This provision provides:

The Office Manager shall be an at-will employee, and may be terminated with or without cause, with or without notice by the Executive Director.

         In its Order and Reasons dated February 22, 2018, this Court recognized that Gartman was an at-will employee:[3]

Gartman's employment agreement provides that she is an at-will, not a for-cause, employee. In her complaint and again in her opposition, she concedes that she is an unclassified employee . . . . Because Gartman herself alleged that she is an at-will and unclassified employee, she does not have a property interest in employment and her employment may be terminated without due process.

Gartman v. Hous. Auth. Of Jefferson Par., 17-12375, 2018 WL 1010194, *10 (E.D. La. Feb. 22, 2018).

         Moreover, Gartman concedes in her deposition testimony that HAJP could terminate her for no reason.

Q: And you've worked in Louisiana for a long time. Are you familiar with at will employment?
A. They can fire you for no reason at all.
Q. Right. Okay. And was that your understanding of your employment at the Housing ...

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