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Leahy-Lind v. Maine Department of Health and Human Services

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 19, 2014



GEORGE Z. SINGAL, District Judge.

Before the Court are a series of motions related to Plaintiff Sharon Leahy-Lind's allegations concerning conduct at Defendant Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the "CDC") from the spring of 2012 to the spring of 2014. On October 21, 2013, Leahy-Lind filed her Complaint (ECF No. 1), naming the CDC and Defendant Dr. Sheila G. Pinette as defendants. On December 20, 2013, the CDC and Pinette filed their Motion To Dismiss In Part And Incorporated Memorandum Of Law (ECF No. 5) ("Motion to Dismiss"). On that date, Pinette also filed a Motion for a More Definite Statement (ECF No. 6).

On February 21, 2014, Leahy-Lind moved to amend her complaint. (Pl.'s Mot. to Amend Compl. with Incorporated Mem. of Law (ECF No. 27) ("Motion to Amend").) Through the Motion to Amend, Leahy-Lind seeks to add Katie N. Woodbury as a plaintiff, Christine Zukas and Lisa Sockabasin as defendants and to assert several additional counts on her and on Woodbury's behalf. The CDC and Pinette oppose the Motion to Amend (ECF Nos. 32 & 33). In addition, Zukas and Sockabasin filed Motions to Intervene in order to object to the Motion to Amend. (See Mot. of Prospective Def. Christine Zukas for Leave to Intervene or Specially Appear for Purpose of Filing Attached Objection to Pl.'s Mot. to Amend Compl., and Incorporated Mem. of Law (ECF No. 31) ("Zukas Motion to Intervene"); Mot. of Prospective Def. Lisa Sockabasin for Leave to Intervene or Specially Appear for the Purpose of Filing Objection to Pl.'s Mot. to Amend Compl. with Incorporated Mem. of Law (ECF No. 34) ("Sockabasin Motion to Intervene").)

For the reasons explained below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Motion to Amend, adding Katie N. Woodbury as a plaintiff and Christine Zukas and Lisa Sockabasin as defendants. The Court finds that Count III of the Original and Amended Complaint fails to state a claim and is futile, and, therefore, GRANTS the Motion to Dismiss as to Count III. The Court finds that Count VII of the Original and Amended Complaint asserting defamation against Pinette fails to state a claim and is futile, in part. Therefore, the Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART as to Count VII. As to the remaining Counts, the Motion to Dismiss is DENIED. Plaintiffs shall file their Amended Complaint, without Count III for violations of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, as a separate entry on the docket by October 3, 2014. The Motion for a More Definite Statement (ECF No. 6), the Zukas Motion to Intervene (ECF No. 31) and the Sockabasin Motion to Intervene (ECF No. 34) are DENIED.


Plaintiff Leahy-Lind has moved to amend her complaint to add three parties and additional counts pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2). (Motion to Amend at 1.) Rule 15(a)(2) provides that after certain deadlines have passed, "a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). In this case, the opposing parties do not so consent. (See Def. Maine Dep't of Health and Human Servs., Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. to Amend Compl. (ECF No. 32) ("CDC Opp'n") at 1; Def. Pinette's Objection to Pl.'s Mot. to Amend Compl. with Incorporated Mem. of Law (ECF No. 33) ("Pinette Opp'n") at 2.) Pursuant to Rule 15(a)(2), leave to amend a pleading "should freely give leave when justice so requires, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2), unless the amendment "would be futile, or reward, inter alia, undue or inintended delay." Steir v. Girl Scouts of the USA , 383 F.3d 7, 12 (1st Cir. 2004). Accordingly, because denial of the Motion to Amend as futile would be appropriate where the amended complaint failed to state a claim, the Court analyzes the Motion to Amend pursuant to the standard for a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. See Platten v. HG Bermuda Exempted Ltd. , 437 F.3d 118, 132 (1st Cir. 2006). In addition, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff Sharon Leahy-Lind's original Complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) & (6).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that a complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction... a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and a demand for the relief sought[.]" Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(1)-(3). On a challenge under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court assumes the truth of the complaint's well-pleaded facts and draws all reasonable inferences in plaintiffs' favor. Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Comm. , 669 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 2012). Under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court "may consider only facts and documents that are part of or incorporated into the complaint." United Auto., Aero., Agric. Impl. Workers of Am. Int'l Union v. Fortuno , 633 F.3d 37, 39 (1st Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted).

A viable complaint need not proffer "heightened fact pleading of specifics, " but in order to survive a motion to dismiss it must contain "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In considering a motion to dismiss, the Court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). Plaintiffs must include enough facts supporting a claim for relief that "nudge[] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570. "If the factual allegations in the complaint are too meager, vague, or conclusory to remove the possibility of relief from the realm of mere conjecture, the complaint is open to dismissal." Haley v. City of Boston , 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting SEC v. Tambone , 597 F.3d 436, 442 (1st Cir. 2010)); see also Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678 (stating that the Court need not accept "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements"). At this point in the litigation, "the determination of whether an issue is trialworthy simply is not the same as the determination of whether a plaintiff states a claim upon which relief can be granted." Bodman v. Maine, Dept. of Health & Human Servs. , 720 F.Supp.2d 115, 121 (D. Me. 2010) (denying motion to dismiss a hostile work environment claim).


A. Plaintiff Sharon Leahy-Lind

On January 1, 2012, Plaintiff Sharon Leahy-Lind was promoted to serve as the Director of the Division of Local Public Health for the Defendant the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the "CDC"). (Compl. ¶ 7; Am. Compl ¶ 11.)[1] Defendant Sheila G. Pinette is the Director of the CDC. (Compl. ¶ 3; Am. Compl. ¶ 4.) Christine Zukas is the Deputy Director of the CDC. (Am. Compl. ¶ 5.) Lisa Sockabasin is the Director of the Office of Health Equity at the CDC. (Am. Compl. ¶ 6.) At all material times, Leahy-Lind performed her job at a high level and was recognized for outstanding abilities, attitude and professionalism. (Compl. ¶ 9; Am. Compl. ¶ 13.)

In the spring of 2012, in connection with a major reduction in state funding for the Healthy Maine Partnerships ("HMP") programs, Leahy-Lind was told by her supervisor, the Deputy Director of the CDC, Zukas, to shred public documents that would have disclosed irregularities and possible illegal activity by the CDC. (Compl. ¶ 11; Am. Compl. ¶ 15.) The records in question showed certain scoring results, among other things, purportedly used to designate nine "lead" HMP programs that were awarded large sums of public funding while other HMPs' funding was radically reduced. (Compl. ¶ 12; Am. Compl. ¶ 16.) What was described as an "objective" test on which awards were allegedly based was in fact manipulated by Pinette, Zukas and the Director of Minority Health, Sockabasin, so that certain HMPs were favored over others. (Compl. ¶ 12; Am. Compl. ¶ 16.)

Leahy-Lind refused to shred any documents because she believed that disposing of public records was illegal and highly inappropriate. (Compl. ¶ 13; Am. Compl. ¶ 17.) Instead, Leahy-Lind reported to high-level officials at the CDC, including Pinette and Sockabasin, that she was told to shred documents and that she refused. (Compl. ¶ 13; Am. Compl. ¶ 17.) In August and September of 2012, Leahy-Lind provided Pinette with details of what Zukas had been doing since Leahy-Lind took the position, and how it became worse after Leahy-Lind refused to shred documents. (Compl. ¶ 16; Am. Compl. ¶ 20.) Pinette responded by saying that Zukas did "the same things" to her, and that, "Chris Zukas is a miserable and hateful person." (Id.) Pinette also said she would have to report the harassment to the Commissioner. (Compl. ¶ 16; Am. Compl. ¶ 20.) Sockabasin later said to Leahy-Lind, "[Zukas] can never know that you came forward. If she finds out she will destroy you-things will get much worse for you." (Compl. ¶ 16; Am. Compl. ¶ 20.) When Zukas found out that Leahy-Lind had not shredded the documents, she physically assaulted her and ordered her to take the documents home and destroy them there. (Compl. ¶ 15; Am. Compl. ¶ 19.) Leahy-Lind refused. (Compl. ¶ 15; Am. Compl. ¶ 19.)

After refusing to shred the documents, Leahy-Lind was repeatedly ordered to discipline a disabled minority employee who was targeted by Zukas and Sockabasin as part of a systematic effort by the CDC to harass and discriminate against minorities and was threatened with being disciplined herself if she failed to follow orders. (Compl. ¶ 18.a.; Am. Compl. ¶ 22.a.) Leahy-Lind was threatened with adverse employment consequences if she mentioned what appeared to be favorable treatment given to the Tribal Healthy Maine Partnerships. (Compl. ¶ 18.g.; Am. Compl. ¶ 22.g.)

Leahy-Lind sought medical attention because of difficulty breathing and extreme anxiety caused by Zukas and Sockabasin, and Pinette who failed to prevent or stop them. (Compl. ¶ 22; Am. Compl. ¶ 26.) Leahy-Lind's doctor strongly recommended that she take time off from work to regain her health, and she was granted family medical leave through March 25, 2013. (Compl. ¶ 22; Am. Compl. ¶ 26.)

In anticipation of her return to work in March, the Department offered Leahy-Lind a demotion to a job based in Rockland (over two hours from her home) or a return to her previous job under the supervision of Zukas. (Compl. ¶ 29; Am. Compl. ¶ 33.) The Department stated that it "believes it has addressed the concerns raised regarding the supervisor." (Compl. ¶ 29; Am. Compl. ¶ 33.)

On March 25, 2013, at the end of her family medical leave, Leahy-Lind notified the Department that she would be returning to her job. (Compl. ¶ 30; Am. Compl. ¶ 33.) On March 28, 2013, Leahy-Lind was placed on administrative leave and told that the Department had "probable cause" to conduct an investigation into allegations that she "shared inappropriate and/or untruthful information with supervisors, subordinates, and/or peers to include, but not limited to, confidential information from senior management discussions." (Compl. ¶ 31; Am. Compl. ¶ 35.) The investigation concluded no wrong doing. (Compl. ¶ 33; Am. Compl. ¶ 37.)

On April 2, 2014, Leahy-Lind filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Maine Human Rights Commission (the "Charge"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 38.) The Charge was published in the media and reported on widely. (Id.) On April 4, 2013, Leahy-Lind publicly stated to the media:

I have devoted 13 years of my life and career to the State of Maine's public health because I firmly and passionately believe that healthy communities are the bedrock of a civilized and peaceful world.
Public health programs that help the poor, elders, disabled and underserved in our rural state, and the scarce public dollars that support these programs, are critically important to everyone - especially Maine's women and children.
More importantly than public health, however, is the public's trust in our government.
It is for this reason that I have filed my complaint. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and it is my goal to shine light on one area of state government that is broken and causing harm to me and the people of Maine.
I would like to say more, but unfortunately I am not able to do so at this time on the advice of my lawyer.
In closing, I wish to thank all of the people who have supported me through this process and encourage the many dedicated public servants in local and state government to continue their good work.

(Am. Compl. ¶¶ 39, 66.)

Upon her return to the CDC in early April of 2013, [2] Leahy-Lind was not supported in her job. (Compl. ¶ 34; Am. Compl. ¶ 40.) Leahy-Lind's hours were restricted and she was held to different standards than before her speech. (Compl. ¶ 33; Am. Compl. ¶ 37.) Leahy-Lind was not given discretion to hire direct subordinates, and employees who voiced support for her were targeted for mistreatment. (Compl. ¶ 33; Am. Compl. ¶ 37.) Leahy-Lind was no longer "buzzed in" to the Human Resources Department and was instead escorted. (Compl. ¶ 33; Am. Compl. ¶ 37.) She was not given an office phone, was micromanaged and unfairly "counseled" for trivial matters. (Compl. ¶ 33; Am. Compl. ¶ 37.)

In addition, because of the Charge and public speech, Leahy-Lind was the subject of a campaign to publicly discredit her. (Compl. ¶ 34; Am. Compl. ¶ 40.) Pinette, Sockabasin and Zukas falsely stated that Leahy-Lind was a "safety threat" and falsely commented on her mental health and stated publicly that she was a liar and untrustworthy. (Compl. ¶ 34; Am. Compl. ¶ 41.) When Leahy-Lind reported these occurrences, she was told that "your concerns have been reviewed and the department believes it has taken appropriate action." (Compl. ¶ 34; Am. Compl. ¶ 41.)

The CDC hired a consultant to conduct a Cultural Competency Assessment Report ("Report") of the organization. (Am. Compl. ¶ 42.) Sockabasin told the consultant hired to conduct the Report that "Sharon is crazy." (Id. ¶ 46.) Leahy-Lind maintains that the statement by Sockabasin was made knowingly or with reckless disregard for its truth in an effort to tarnish Leahy-Lind's reputation. (Id. ¶ 47.) The Report has been maintained as confidential and not released to Leahy-Lind or the public. (Id. ¶¶ 43-44, 48, 51.)

On July 31, 2013, after Leahy-Lind was asked to be a party to a hiring process that she felt was unfair and denied her the ability to employ the best qualified candidate, the conditions of her employment became intolerable. (Compl. ¶ 35; Am. Compl. ¶ 49.)

B. Katie Woodbury

Katie Woodbury was an office manager at the CDC and worked for Leahy-Lind when Leahy-Lind was the Director of Public Health. (Am. Compl. ¶ 53.) On April 21, 2013, Woodbury spoke with reporters from the Lewiston Sun Journal, echoing the concerns that Leahy-Lind had raised when she spoke publicly, including the allegation that the Healthy Maine Partnership funding was manipulated. (Id. ¶¶ 54, 55.) Woodbury said publicly that individuals who viewed the final scores and knew that the scores were altered "were up in arms over that because it wasn't who they picked." (Id. ¶ 56.) Woodbury also told the Lewiston Sun Journal that she was present when Leahy-Lind had been kicked under the table at a meeting for speaking and when Sockabasin had screamed at Leahy-Lind. (Id. ¶¶ 57, 58.)

Woodbury spoke publicly about the work environment at the CDC. (Am. Compl. ¶ 62.) She said the she experienced the same treatment from Zukas as Leahy-Lind, and that "if you do not agree with [] Zukas, she's got a hair trigger and she'll rip you up." (Id. ¶¶ 58, 59.) She said that supervisors told employees to spy on their coworkers and retaliated against those they disliked or who challenged management. (Id.) She said that coworkers at the CDC fear management. (Id. ¶ 63.) Woodbury decided to speak publicly because she felt too much had been "shoved under the rug." (Id. ¶ 64.)

Following Woodbury's public comments, Zukas, Sockabasin and Pinette instigated a substantial campaign of harassment against Woodbury. (Id. ¶¶ 66, 67.) Coworkers at the CDC were told not to speak to Woodbury. (Id. ¶ 75.a.) Zukas and Sockabasin followed Woodbury but refused to speak to or look at her. (Id. ¶ 75.b.) Emails sent by Pinette, Zukas and Sockabasin were "cheerful" and professional, but their direct communications with Woodbury were hostile, confrontational and intimidating. (Id. ¶ 75.c.) In meetings, they refused to acknowledge Woodbury's presence or speak to her. (Id.) Woodbury was moved next to Zukas and Sockabasin's offices and ordered to sign a 1989 Executive Order that contains a Code of Conduct, even though she had previously signed all required policies and forms. (Id. ¶ 75.d.) Woodbury was repeatedly reassigned to different locations and supervisors. (Id. ¶ 75.e.) Woodbury was taken off the State Coordinating Council, where she worked as staff. (Id. ¶ 75.f.) Woodbury was removed from the "Idea Team" of other office managers. (Id. ¶ 75.g.) Woodbury was micro-managed like she had never been before speaking publicly and even though her job performance remained very good. (Id. ¶ 75.h.) Zukas began questioning and refusing to approve Woodbury's Time and Attendance Management forms, where that had never previously occurred in Woodbury's thirteen years of experience. (Id. ¶ 75.i.) Woodbury was no longer allowed to work from home on occasion to accommodate medical appointments. (Id. ¶ 75.j.)

On August 12, 2013, Woodbury met with the Human Resources Department and reported that the actions by Zukas and Sockabasin were causing her distress. (Am. Compl. ¶ 77.) She asked to not have to report to them. (Id.) Woodbury was told, "whistleblowers get guilty consciouses, " "maybe you are imagining things" and "maybe you shouldn't have talked to the newspapers." (Id.) On August 14, 2013, Woodbury was informed that she would be working under the direct ...

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