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Doucette v. Morrison County

United States District Court, Eighth Circuit

May 29, 2013

Mary Doucette, Plaintiff,
Morrison County, Minnesota, Defendant.

Clayton D. Halunen, Esq., Susan M. Coler, Esq., Michelle Dye Neumann, Esq., Jacob Frey, Esq., and Brian T. Rochel, Esq., Halunen & Associates, Minneapolis, MN, on behalf of Plaintiff.

Dyan J. Ebert, Esq., and Melinda M. Sanders, Esq., Quinlivan & Hughes, PA, St. Cloud, MN, on behalf of Defendant.


ANN D. MONTGOMERY, District Judge.


On April 10, 2013, the undersigned United States District Judge heard oral argument on Defendant Morrison County's (the "County") Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 15]. In her Complaint [Docket No. 1-1], Plaintiff Mary Doucette, a former County employee, alleges the County discriminated against her in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). For the reasons stated herein, the County's motion is granted in part and denied in part.


Doucette began working as the assistant jail administrator for the Morrison County sheriff's department in 1994.[1] Part 1 of Doucette Decl. [Docket No. 28] ("Doucette Decl. I") ¶ 4. The sheriff's department is structured into two divisions: the jail division and a general division. The general division encompasses multiple functions, including patrol, clerical, and investigative duties. Attach. to Coler Decl. [Docket No. 27], Wetzel Dep. 9-11, 73 (filed under seal). Id . The hierarchy within these two divisions is not parallel.

In the jail division, the jail administrator oversees various staff, including the assistant jail administrator, in the operation of the County's jail. See id. The assistant jail administrator has several areas of responsibility. First, she functionally serves as the jail administrator in the jail administrator's absence. Sanders Aff. [Docket No. 18], Ex. C (assistant jail administrator job description). This requires the assistant jail administrator to oversee staff, ensure the proper operation of the jail facility, conduct inspections, and also assist in budgeting and other reporting duties. Id . She also performs human resources functions, including conducting training, evaluations, and recruitment. Id . Third, the assistant jail administrator handles record-keeping, which includes managing inmate files, medical reports and various other logs, and also billing other counties for housing prisoners. Id . In addition to these responsibilities, the assistant jail administrator supervises inmate programming and services, and performs whatever other duties the sheriff directs. Id.

As assistant jail administrator, Doucette, a sergeant, initially reported to jail administrator Lieutenant Don Boone. Boone, in turn, reported to Sheriff Paul Tschida. Doucette Decl. I ¶ 4. Sheriff Michel Wetzel was elected in November 2002 and replaced Tschida in 2003. In 2004, Wetzel sought a replacement for Boone as jail administrator. Doucette applied for the position, but Wetzel hired Michael Monnier, a correctional officer then promoted to lieutenant. Doucette Decl. I ¶¶ 4, 13.

Doucette handled her job responsibilities as assistant jail administrator for several years, having only minor performance issues relating to staff supervision and communication. Attach. Coler Decl., Monnier Dep. 13-15; Doucette Decl. I ¶ 16. Then, on January 22, 2007, Doucette received a verbal reprimand from Monnier. In his memorandum discussing the reprimand, Monnier wrote that he had "numerous discussions" with Doucette regarding the importance of forwarding bills to the Auditor's Office in a timely manner, and the importance of ensuring the bills' accuracy. Sanders Aff. Ex. D. In explaining the reprimand, Monnier noted that Doucette had submitted a bill for payment that had been sent in error by a vendor, and did not actually require payment. Id . He issued the reprimand because in addition to the inaccurate bill, Doucette had failed to submit a "large stack" of invoices to the auditor's office before the end of 2006, meaning the reflected expenses would be counted as expenses for 2007. Id.

In her deposition, Doucette explained that overbilling errors sometimes occur because of miscommunication between herself and the other staff, who coordinate the actual receipt of the items described in the invoices. Attach. to Coler Decl., Doucette Dep. 36-37 (filed under seal). Nevertheless, Doucette admitted the verification of invoices was ultimately her responsibility. Id. at 37-38, 61, 69-70. In response to the late-filed invoices, Doucette explained at least some of the late bills had not reached her desk until after the end of the year, and that in general, she had been overwhelmed with work in 2007. See id. at 27-29.

On March 20, 2007, Monnier issued a second verbal reprimand to Doucette relating to her billing other counties for their use of Morrison County's extra jail capacity to house inmates. Sanders Aff. Ex. E. In March 2007, someone from the St. Louis County jail notified Monnier that the County had issued a housing invoice for February 2 through February 28, 2007, but had omitted February 1. Id . Monnier estimated that the omission of this single day could cost the County $2, 400, and instructed Doucette to call other counties receiving invoices to note the error. Id.

After these two verbal reprimands, Doucette's employment continued without a documented incident for over two years. On October 13, 2009, Monnier completed a performance appraisal for Doucette. Sanders Aff. Ex. F. Monnier asked Doucette to rank herself from 1-4 in several categories, with "1" meaning "unacceptable" and "4" meaning "exceeds performance expectations." Id . Doucette ranked herself as a "4" in 10 out of 11 categories, but Monnier reduced seven of these rankings to a "3, " which meant "meets performance expectations." Id .; Doucette Dep. 42-43. Monnier noted Doucette was "very knowledgeable with the jail's computer and electronics equipment, " that she was "very helpful when filling in for staff, " and that she had improved with regard to billing errors in the previous 12 months. Sanders Aff. Ex. F. Monnier also noted Doucette's rapport with other staff "had been more positive, " as they had discussed "not openly talking about mistakes made by other employees when staff are present." Id.

On November 10, 2010, Monnier issued a letter of reprimand to Doucette. In the letter, Monnier included several items as background. He noted a September 2010 discussion he had with Doucette regarding an August inmate medication billing error, in which the County was overcharged for medication. At that time, Monnier advised Doucette to "double check all billings for accuracy." Sanders Aff. Ex. G. Also in September 2010, Monnier received an invoice from Wal-Mart for medication, but the County had discontinued purchases from Wal-Mart two months prior. Id . Upon further investigation, it appeared the County may have been over-billed for medications dating back as far as December 2008. Id . Then, in October 2010, Doucette overcharged Douglas County by $1, 500 for the housing of an inmate who was not actually in the jail. Monnier discussed with Doucette the importance of accuracy in billing, as errors could affect the County's relationship with other departments. Id . Doucette now admits these errors, but argues the issues were ultimately corrected and not the sort of errors that might affect the County's business relationships.

The November 10, 2010, letter of reprimand resulted in the County placing Doucette on a corrective action plan. Sanders Aff. Ex. H. The plan primarily required Doucette to verify all billings and create a log tracking these verifications. It also required Doucette to create monthly billing statements, the approval of which was necessary before Doucette could send out invoices. Id . The plan stayed in effect for 6 months, and ended in May 2011. At that time, Monnier wrote that Doucette "acknowledged that she had made errors in the past" but that going forward, "things should be fine." Sanders Aff. Ex. I.

Doucette was on vacation from the end of January 2011 through the end of February 2011. Doucette Dep. 86. Earlier, in September 2010, an auditor with the Office of the State Auditor had recommended the sheriff's department conduct monthly reconciliations of the inmates' commissary accounts (known as "PX accounts"), a matter within Doucette's assigned responsibilities. Sanders Aff. Ex. L. Several months after Doucette returned from vacation, in May 2011, Monnier asked about the status of the reconciliations. Doucette misrepresented to Monnier that she had completed the reconciliations. Doucette Dep. 100. Doucette testified that she had done so to "get him off [her] back" while she worked on accounting errors in the computer system. Id.

In June 2011, Monnier met with Doucette regarding the reconciliations. Sanders Aff. Exs. K, L. At the meeting, Doucette told Monnier about the accounting errors for the first time. Monnier and Doucette then met with Sheriff Wetzel, where Doucette informed them only three reconciliations had been completed since September 2010. Monnier also noted a $20 discrepancy in one reconciliation sent to the State Auditor's Office. It appeared to Monnier that Doucette used "white-out" to later alter the inmate checkbook register and retroactively correct the error. Sanders Aff. Ex. L. Id . Finally, Monnier and Wetzel also discussed an additional discrepancy in the County's billing from Coburn Pharmacy for inmate medication. Id . Doucette informed them she was working with the pharmacy to correct the invoice. Id . Given Doucette's disciplinary history, Monnier placed Doucette on a 3-day suspension.

At her deposition, Doucette seemingly disputed this version of events, testifying in a vague manner that she had submitted six months of "bank statements" but that Monnier had failed to approve them. See Doucette Dep. 115. However, as Monnier testified, retrieving inmate account statements was only the first step in performing the reconciliations. Monnier Dep. 59-60, 77-80. In her memorandum, Doucette no longer disputes that she failed to conduct the reconciliations, and instead argues the computer system delayed her. See Pl.'s Mem. Opp. Summ. J. [Docket No. 34] ("Pl.'s Opp.") 20 (filed under seal). Doucette also notes Monnier directed another employee to refrain from conducting the February 2011 reconciliation during Doucette's vacation, as Monnier preferred Doucette handle the task. See Monnier Dep. 54-55. Also, Doucette conceded that she had used "white-out" to redact several register entries, but also suggested that she had done so in order to double-check her work. See Doucette Dep. 116-18. Doucette had no recollection of the Coburn Pharmacy billing error. Id. at 120-21.

In July 2011, Monnier again met with Doucette. Monnier discovered a bill forwarded to him by Doucette for payment of inmate medical services for which the County was not responsible. Sanders Aff. Ex. M. Monnier also noted an error in which Doucette had addressed a bill intended for St. Louis County to another county instead. On this occasion, Monnier placed Doucette on a 5-day suspension, and warned her that he would be closely monitoring her work, particularly with regard to billing. Id . Doucette admits the errors, but argues she would have caught and corrected them. Pl.'s Opp. 21.

On August 11, 2011, Doucette went on FMLA leave. Just before doing so, she filed a union grievance regarding her suspension. On August 25, 2011, Wetzel met with Doucette and Merl King, her union representative. In a letter following the meeting, Wetzel wrote Doucette admitted making the errors at issue. Sanders Aff. Ex. O. Wetzel noted Doucette faced issues in her personal life that might have led to her work difficulties. Ultimately, Wetzel concluded these personal issues could not excuse her performance and that the escalating disciplinary actions and suspension were warranted. In the letter, Wetzel also noted he had previously advised Doucette to make use of the Employee Assistance Program for her personal problems and to consider taking leave under the FMLA.

Also while on her FMLA leave, Doucette submitted a complaint to the County alleging age and sex discrimination. Sanders Aff. Ex. Q. County Administrator Deb Gruber began an investigation into the allegations. Gruber attempted to contact Doucette several times for further information, but Doucette did not cooperate with these requests. See Attach. to Coler Aff., Gruber Dep. at 68-72 (filed under seal).

On September 16, 2011, Doucette met with Gruber and the County Attorney and informed them she had retained counsel, who would handle the matter. Id . Doucette's counsel wanted to put the investigation on hold, but Gruber disagreed and continued her inquiry. Id. at 71. Shortly thereafter, Gruber closed the investigation. Id . Gruber also upheld Doucette's 5-day suspension as warranted under the circumstances. Sanders Aff. Ex. S.

In addition to handling Doucette's complaint and grievance, Gruber contacted Doucette's clinic regarding her FMLA leave. On Doucette's FMLA certification, the clinic had improperly stated a cause for Doucette's absence. Gruber spoke with a nurse at the clinic and then a hospital administrator, and eventually had the certification reissued without a stated cause. See Gruber Dep. 23-32. At oral argument, the parties agreed that to their knowledge, neither Monnier nor Wetzel had directed Gruber to take this action.

Doucette returned from her approximately three months of FMLA leave on October 24, 2011. Before she resumed work, Doucette met with Monnier. Monnier suggested Doucette focus on implementing "Lexipol, " a new jail policy, and allow others to assume some of Doucette's other responsibilities. Monnier Dep. 209-11. From the time of her return, however, Doucette argues the County scrutinized her actions and issued confusing directives.

On November 7, 2011, Doucette submitted copies of invoices for inmate medication to Monnier. On one invoice, Monnier noticed Doucette had "double-billed" a prescription, resulting in an overcharge to the County of about $15 to $20. Id. at 18-20, 31. On another invoice, Doucette failed to include a copy of the inmate's "white ticket, " a small piece of paper indicating the inmate's prescription and confirming its proper delivery to the jail. Id. at 18-22. Doucette explained, and Monnier did not dispute, that Doucette had omitted the white ticket due to a copying error. Upon being told of the omission, she retrieved the original white ticket and provided it to Monnier. See id. at 22-24.

On or about November 14, 2011, Wetzel sent Doucette a Notice of Intent to Terminate. Sanders Aff. Ex. X. In the notice, Wetzel noted Doucette admitted to the two November billing errors. He wrote that while these mistakes would not warrant termination as a "first offense, " in this case they were the final straw in Doucette's "recurring performance problem" in submitting accurate bill payments. Id . Wetzel summarized Doucette's history of disciplinary actions, and concluded further support or coaching would not improve her performance. Id . Doucette's union agent contested the termination, but Wetzel upheld his original decision. Doucette's termination took effect on November 21, 2011. Sanders Aff. Ex. Y.

On or about January 17, 2012, Doucette initiated this action, which the County removed to federal court. Not. of Removal [Docket No. 1] 2. Through her briefing and at oral argument, Doucette has since ceded some of her claims. In the present motion, Doucette argues for the viability of the following claims: (1) retaliation in violation of the FMLA; (2) reprisal in violation of the MHRA; (3) sex discrimination in violation of the MHRA; and (4) sex-plus-age discrimination in violation of the MHRA. Although the Complaint does not ...

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