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Aroostook Medical Center v. Graves

Superior Court of Maine, Aroostook

February 21, 2018

THE AROOSTOOK MEDICAL CENTER, Plaintiff
v.
STEPHANIE GRAVES Defendant

          ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO DISMISS DEFENDANT'S COUNTERCLAIM

         The Aroostook Medical Center, Plaintiff, (hereafter referred to as TAMC) has brought suit against Stephanie Graves, Defendant, (hereafter referred to as Graves) to recover a portion of monies paid to Graves in the form of a sign on bonus and educational loan assistance. Graves timely answered the complaint and also brought a counterclaim seeking damages for loss of income and emotional distress arising from her termination from employment. On December 1, 2017 TAMC filed a Motion to Dismiss Graves' counterclaim.

         In its Motion to Dismiss, TAMC asserts Graves' counterclaim is moot due to Graves not complying with 5 M.R.S. § 4622 of the Maine Human Rights Act and is barred from recovering monetary relief. In her objection to the motion Graves asserts she is not seeking redress under the Maine Human Rights Act and instead asserts her claim for relief is based on breach of contract and that her employment was terminated without cause.

         From a review of the pleadings, the following facts are not in dispute. TAMC extended Graves an offer of employment by a Letter of Employment Offer dated July 21, 2015. Graves accepted the offer and began employment on September 20, 2015. The employment agreement included a sign on bonus of $15, 000, 00 and educational loan assistance of $18, 411.40. The employment agreement further contained terms for repayment of a portion of the sign on bonus and educational loan assistance if employment was terminated within three years and ten years respectively, On September 15, 2016 TAMC suspended Graves' employment, and on September 30, 2016 TAMC terminated Graves' employment for cause. [1]See Complaint and Answer, paragraphs 1-18. 22, 24-26.

         A predicate to addressing TAMC's Motion to Dismiss is determining what claim for relief is being made by Graves. M.R.Civ.P. 8(a) states:

A Pleading which sets forth a claim for relief, whether an original claim, counterclaim, cross-claim, or third-party claim, shall contain (1) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, and (2) a demand for judgment for the relief which the pleader seeks. Relief in the alternative or of several different types may be demanded.

         The purpose of the rule is to give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiffs claim is and the grounds on which it rests. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41. A complaint should not be dismissed unless it appears to a certainty that the plaintiff is not entitled to relief under any facts he might prove to support his claim. 2 Harvey, Maine Civil Practice, §8.2 at 358 (3d ed, 2015-2016).

         Graves does not assign a title to her counterclaim theories, such as "breach of contract", "wrongful termination", or "discrimination, " Rather, Graves makes averments that generally explain the source of stress causing her fo suffer from a disability, which she identifies as Severe Adjustment Disorder with Disturbance of Emotions and Conduct. Counterclaim paragraphs 3-6. She further describes communications between her and TAMC regarding the effect of the stress on her work performance. Counterclaim paragraphs 7-10, 12. And Graves specifically avers that she was "at all times capable, with reasonable accommodations, of performing the essential functions of her job." Counterclaim paragraph 13. But to ascertain what claim is being made, it is helpful to identify those averments that describe what a defendant did or failed to do that is actionable. In her counterclaim, Graves makes two such averments.

         In paragraph 14, Graves avers that TAMC failed to provide accommodations and failed to allow her an opportunity to undergo treatment. Counterclaim paragraph 14. And in paragraph 15 Graves avers TAMC terminated her position as a result of her disability.

         Counterclaim paragraph 15.

         Lastly, in her counterclaim Graves avers the effect of the alleged actions and the relief sought, specifically a loss of income and emotional distress.

         Counterclaim paragraph 16.

         In short, the claim being made by Graves in her counterclaim can best be interpreted as a claim for wrongful employment termination due to a disability. She describes her disability and alleges TAMC terminated her position without making any accommodations. 5 M.R.S. § 4572(1)(A) of the Maine Human Rights Act deems it unlawful employment discrimination for an employer to refuse to hire or discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee because of physical or mental disability. Graves' counterclaim in all respects appears to make a claim for employment discrimination as defined by the Maine Human Rights Act.

         But the Maine Human Rights Act precludes an award of civil penal damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages or attorney fees if a complaint has not been timely filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission. 5 M.R.S. § 4622(1) states:

Attorney's fees under section 4614 and civil penal damages or compensatory damages and punitive damages under section 4613 may not be awarded to a plaintiff in a civil action under this Act unless the plaintiff alleges and establishes that, prior to the filing of the civil action, ...

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