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Barnett v. Louisiana Department of Health

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

March 19, 2019

MICHELLE BARNETT
v.
LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

          RULING AND ORDER

          JOHN W. deGRAVELLES, JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on three motions filed by Defendant Louisiana Department of Health (“LDH”): the Motion to Dismiss or, Alternatively, Stay Proceeding Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1) (Doc. 11); the Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1) (Doc. 16); and the Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6) (Doc. 18). Plaintiff Michelle Barnett opposes the motions. (Docs. 14, 25 & 26). LDH has filed reply briefs in support of the latter two motions. (Docs. 27 & 28). Oral argument is not necessary. After careful consideration of the parties' arguments, the facts alleged, and the applicable law, and for the following reasons, the motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claims under state law and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) (Doc. 16) is granted, and these claims are dismissed without prejudice. The motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claim under the Louisiana Human Rights Act (Doc. 18) is denied as moot. Finally, the motion to dismiss under the Colorado River abstention doctrine (Doc. 11) is denied.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Allegations of the Complaint

         For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept the following factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Lormand v. US Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 232 (5th Cir. 2009). On December 22, 2017, Plaintiff Michelle Barnett filed suit in this Court against LDH alleging that she was discriminated against on the basis of her age and sex during the course of her employment with LDH from 2011 to 2017. Barnett is a 51 year-old white woman. (Doc. 1 at 3). On March 1, 2012, LDH transferred her from its Medicaid division to the Office of Behavioral Health (“OBH”) as a Program Manager 2 (“PM2”). (Id. at 4). As of the date of her transfer, Barnett had 24 years of experience in Business Intelligence/Analytics (“BI”) in the fields of finance, insurance, energy, disaster management, education, information technology, and healthcare. (Id.). She earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in applied statistics from Louisiana State University. (Id.). She was one of only 12 “SAS Advanced Certified Programmers” in the state of Louisiana and the only one at LDH. (Id.). She was accepted into the Healthcare Informatics doctoral program at Rutgers University. (Id.). She had staff and organizational management experience as an assistant actuary, vice president for a national corporation, chief forecaster for an energy company, president of an energy consulting company, department chair of a local college's mathematics department, and LDH's Assistant Section Chief of all physician's programs in Louisiana. (Id.). She also had “program management experience throughout her entire career.” (Id. at 5).

         Barnett “managed the creation and build-out of OBH's entire data warehouse, various cross walks for communication with numerous data systems and databases on a state and federal level, data dictionaries, and design specifications essentially creating the elemental foundations of all BI functions agency-wide.” (Doc. 1 at 5). She also directed data collection for use in federal and state regulatory reporting, legislative requests, and other “ad hoc requests that are necessary to monitor operations agency-wide.” (Id.). Additionally, Barnett “developed and implemented policies, protocols, and designs for system enhancements, system and database testing, data integrity, and was the BI lead person for all OBH agency rollouts of new initiatives, problems with existing programs, or initiatives which she led.” (Id.).

         1. Age and Sex Discrimination

         In May 2012, Barnett's supervisor, Randy Lemoine, retired and suggested that she apply for his position--Program Manager 4 (“PM4”) and Section Chief of BI. (Doc. 1 at 6). Barnett applied for the position. (Id.). Barnett was selected as one of the top-five applicants and was interviewed for the position. (Id. at 6-7). The hiring committee confirmed that Barnett was qualified, having been “essentially serving in the PM4 position [and] working closely with Mr. Lemoine, ” and thus designated her as the top applicant for the position. (Id. at 7). Another applicant for the position, Joshua Hardy, was a male under the age of 35 who was not qualified for the position under LDH's criteria because he had only two years of post-baccalaureate experience and who, “upon information and belief, falsified information on his application for the PM4 Position to suggest that he possessed the minimum qualifications for the PM4 Position.” (Id.). Lemoine's administrative assistant concluded that Hardy was not qualified and informed Lemoine that Hardy could not be included in the final cut of applicants. (Id.). “Lemoine responded to this fact by closing his office door and telling [his assistant] that he had no choice and he was being forced to include Hardy in the group of final applicants and to interview him for the PM4 Position.” (Id. at 7-8).

         Despite the fact that the Civil Service later “confirmed” that Hardy was not qualified, Hardy was given an “informal interview” by LDH, which Barnett alleges illustrates that OBH management “was aware that Hardy was not minimally qualified for a PM4 level position and thus was not eligible to be interviewed.” (Doc. 1 at 8). However, despite the fact that Hardy was not qualified and Barnett was the most highly-qualified applicant, LDH decided to leave the PM4 position unfilled. (Id.). Barnett alleges that “it was apparent” that LDH decided to leave the position unfilled until Hardy could gain the minimum work experience necessary to qualify for the position. (Id. at 8-9). Despite the fact that she was not officially promoted, Barnett continued to unofficially perform PM4 duties and would “fill in as the Section Chief” at the request of OBH management. (Id. at 9).

         As of 2017, Barnett had yet to be promoted at LDH, while Hardy was promoted five times over a four-year period from 2010 to 2013 despite the fact that “he had less educational credentials, noticeably less work experience (including less experience with [LDH]), as well as questionable work performance/attendance.” (Doc. 1 at 10-11). After he was promoted to the PM2 position in OBH, Hardy subjected Barnett to harassment in a variety of ways, including by causing morale problems with her staff, attempting to circumvent her authority, taking a computer from the locked office of one or her employees, entering her locked office on multiple occasions without her permission while she was not present, making false statements about her to their common supervisor, Karen Stubbs, and “sabotaging” a statewide training seminar she and her staff had prepared for “by canceling their GoTo Meeting account the night before the event for no reason and no forewarning.” (Id. at 11-12). Barnett complained repeatedly to Stubbs about this harassment, but no steps were taken to address it. (Id. at 12).

         In February 2013, LDH posted a second job announcement for the vacant PM4 position I OBH. (Doc. 1 at 13). Barnett alleges that Hardy “still met neither the professional level nor the supervisory experience requirements” LDH set for the position. (Id. at 13). On February 19, OBH Human Resources (“HR”) Director Ruby Triggs informed Barnett that the decision to hire Hardy for the PM4 position “had already been made the year before” and he would be promoted to PM4 “as he had been promised.” (Id. at 14). According to Barnett, LDH desired to promote Harvey because he is a male and is under the age of 35, even though he was less qualified and performed poorly in his role as a PM2. (Id. at 15-16). However, the PM4 position remained unfilled in subsequent months. (Id. at 16). LDH then promoted Harvey to a PM4 position in the Medicaid Division in August 2013. (Id. at 17).

         On November 12, 2013, LDH suspended Barnett. (Id. at 19). Barnett believes that the suspension was in retaliation for her complaints concerning Hardy's promotion. (Id.). LDH filed a report to the Louisiana Ethics Board “replete with falsehoods and lies” alleging that a conflict of interest existed involving Barnett and her husband's employment with an LDH contractor. (Id.). When Barnett had informed her supervisors of her husband's employment in the summer of 2012, they stated that there was no conflict of interest and that “nothing needed to be done.” (Id. at 20). Despite the fact that LDH was aware of Barnett's husband's employment for over a year, it only decided to lodge the complaint after Barnett raised objections over Hardy's promotion. (Id. at 19).

         On December 19, 2013, LDH informed Barnett that the ethics investigation revealed no wrongdoing. (Doc. 1 at 21). On January 6, 2014, Barnett was told to report to work the next day but that, instead of returning to OBH, she would work for LDH Deputy Secretary Courtney Phillips, which Barnett alleges constituted a demotion. (Id.). LDH refused to inform Barnett of the details regarding its ethics complaint and eventually admitted to her that it had never requested an advisory opinion from the Louisiana Board of Ethics. (Id. at 22-23). At the time of her demotion, Barnett was “the oldest staff member in her section working within the technical arena.” (Id. at 23). In the subsequent months, Barnett complained to Assistant Secretary Rochelle Dunham, HR Director Lauren Guttzeit, Executive Counsel Steve Russo, and Deputy Undersecretary Courtney Phillips about “all of the discrimination, retaliation, mistreatment, and harassment that [LDH] had continuously subjected to her throughout the previous twenty (20) months and her fear that she was again being wrongfully denied promotion to . . . the PM4 position.” (Id. at 26). However, none of the four, who Barnett characterizes as “high level LDH executives, ” attempted to “stop it, mitigate it, or even investigate these claims much less the personal and professional damage she was suffering.” (Id. at 27-28).

         Subsequently, Barnett was transferred to Program Integrity (“PI”), though the discriminatory and retaliatory treatment “continued and in some cases worsened.” (Doc. 1 at 28). Barnett filed suit against LDH in state court two weeks later on August 22, 2014. (Id. at 29). First, LDH “pressured” her to sign a “Conditional Offer of Employment, ” which provided that she would lose civil service protections, state benefits, and leave time in the event of a layoff. (Id.). Barnett refused to sign the document. (Id.). One month after the transfer, PI's Section Chief, John Korduner, “berated [Barnett's] work and efforts in front of her staff members.” (Id.) . A t P I, B a r n e t t had no input into the hiring of her first new staff member, a male who earned 18 percent more than she did despite the fact that “she was his supervisor and had infinitely more experience and academic credentials than he had.” (Id.). Barnett requested a higher salary by filing for an Optional Pay Adjustment, which LDH denied. (Id. at 30). Barnett's supervisor, Quint O'Connor, informed her that PI's two upper-level managers (Korduner and Chief Compliance Officer Bill Root) did not speak well of her and “were looking for any opportunity to get rid of her.” (Id.). Korduner and Root would hold meetings with Barnett's subordinates while excluding her, which was “humiliating and embarrassing” and impeded Barnett's ability to manage her team. (Id. at 31).

         Barnett's direct supervisor, O'Connor, was “forced” by Root and Korduner to treat her poorly, which resulted in his filing “a formal request with LDH HR that either Root and Korduner cease attempting to harass, abuse, and mistreat [Barnett] through [O'Connor] or have her removed from his direct supervision.” (Doc. 1 at 31-32). LDH responded by requiring Barnett to report directly to Korduner, which was “devastating to her.” (Id. at 32). In April 2015, Korduner and Root attempted to force Barnett to hire a “young, white male” who worked for the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and was auditing LDH. (Id.). Barnett believed that it was inappropriate for “an auditor to be seeking a job with the entity he was auditing, ” and that he was not qualified because he did not have “SAS programming experience.” (Id.). As a result, on May 18, 2015, Barnett filed a “Confidential Request for Guidance” to HR Director Lauren Guttzeit. (Id. at 33). Subsequently, “both Root and Korduner increased the levels of hostility and isolation that they subjected her to so that they occurred on an almost daily basis.” (Id.).

         On June 26, 2015, Guttzeit responded to Barnett's confidential request by memorandum. (Doc. 1 at 34). In the memorandum, Guttzeit recited the contents of Barnett's complaint and disclosed the identities of the individuals interviewed during the investigation before concluding that no impropriety occurred. (Id.). The memorandum was sent to Root and Korduner, the subjects of the complaint, violating its confidentiality. (Id.). On July 6, Barnett was informed that “two of her three units of responsibility” were being removed from her supervision. (Id.). Barnett alleges that this constituted a “functional” demotion and was intended solely to “humiliate and retaliate against” her. (Id. at 35). That day, Barnett had suicidal thoughts, and two days later she visited a doctor. (Id.). The doctor recommended that she immediately be placed on family medical leave for her mental and physical health. (Id.). She remained on leave until July 27. (Id.). Korduner and Root continued to mistreat and harass Barnett after she returned. (Id. at 36).

         In August 2015, Korduner, Root, and O'Connor met with Barnett regarding her annual evaluation of a younger white male subordinate (“Employee A”). (Doc. 1 at 36). They “repeatedly attacked” and “intimidate[ed]” Barnett “so that she would change the evaluation.” (Id. at 37). Barnett refused, and Korduner threatened her that “there could be consequences against her over her evaluation of the employee.” (Id.). On August 12, O'Connor showed Barnett a “planning form” by Korduner which “included what he expected of O'Connor in the coming year.” (Id.). Under a section entitled “People Development, ” Korduner wrote “prepare young staff for advancement.” (Id.). Barnett alleges that this statement evidences LDH's discriminatory practice of hiring and promoting younger individuals. (Id.).

         The same month, Barnett sought written testimony from other older women to whom Employee A had “directed disrespectful treatment towards.” (Doc. 1 at 39). She amassed 40 pages of documentation “confirming Employee A's behavior and her attempts at remediation.” (Id.). Barnett then consulted with HR representatives who informed her that she had “more than enough documentation to justify” the negative personnel evaluation. (Id.). On August 24, she met with Employee A to perform the evaluation. (Id.). He “stormed out of the room” four minutes after the evaluation began. (Id.). The next day, Barnett intended to work from home “to give Employee A an opportunity to settle down.” (Id.). However, O'Connor informed her that she needed to take leave if she desired to work from home. (Id. at 40). Barnett was “stunned” and discovered the next day that her “work from home privileges were also taken away.” (Id.). No. staff member's ability to work from home changed other than Barnett and O'Connor. (Id.).

         In the fall of 2015, Employee A's negative evaluation was “reversed by LDH HR with no logical explanation.” (Doc. 1 at 41). Korduner had initiated his own investigation by filing a “formal grievance” during his review of the evaluation. (Id.). This violates an LDH policy prohibiting using the grievance process in conjunction with the evaluation review process. (Id.).

         Barnett alleges that throughout her employment at LDH, “there has been a pattern and practice of discrimination against females evidenced in part by the promotions, raises given to, and/or hiring of white male employees over females, ” even where females are more qualified. (Doc. 1 at 42). LDH has had the same pattern or practice with respect to individuals over 40 years old. (Id.). Barnett believes ...


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