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Reynolds-Rogers v. State, Department of Health & Social Services

Supreme Court of Alaska

March 8, 2019

TERRI REYNOLDS-ROGERS, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & SOCIAL SERVICES, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court3AN-14-09825 CI of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Mark Rindner, Judge

         Appearances:

          Terri S. Reynolds-Rogers, pro se, Palmer, Appellant.

          Elizabeth M. Bakalar, Janell M. Hafner, Assistant Attorneys General, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Appellee.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.

          OPINION

          MAASSEN, JUSTICE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A former employee of the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) brought a wrongful discharge suit against the State. At the time of her termination she had four union grievances pending against DHSS, and her union filed another based on the termination. The union settled all five grievances in exchange for a payment to the employee. She later sued DHSS for wrongful termination, alleging both breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and several torts, including retaliatory discharge and failure to accommodate her disabilities. The superior court granted DHSS's motion for summary judgment and entered final judgment against the employee.

         We conclude that the superior court was correct in deciding that the employee's claims were resolved by the settlement of her grievances, were barred by the statute of limitations, or were legally insufficient in light of the undisputed facts. We therefore affirm the superior court's judgment.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         A. Facts

         1. Work duties

         Terri Reynolds-Rogers (Rogers[1]) began to work for DHSS as a Health Program Manager I in August 2006. She has a bachelor's degree in zoology and completed two years of medical school. Her job duties with DHSS involved implementing the Medicaid program: she began by screening paperwork from nursing homes and hospitals related to authorizations for long-term care and was later given duties related to the Medicaid Waiver program.[2]

         Rogers's immediate supervisor during most of her employment with DHS S was Rita Walker, whose supervisor was Leanna Hunter. At one point Walker's supervisor had been Odette Jamieson, who "remain[ed] in the chain of command to the end of [Rogers's] service" as Hunter's supervisor.

         For the first few years Rogers's employment with DHS S was unremarkable, though she described some friction between herself and Walker. Her first performance evaluation, in June 2011, rated her overall performance as "mid acceptable." The evaluation set out goals for the following year, including weekly meetings with Walker, a "[d]ecrease [in] use of unscheduled leave," cross-training for other positions, showing "improvement in acceptance of supervision," and "[consistently follow[ing] chain of command." Rogers strongly disagreed with the rating and asserts that she filed a lengthy rebuttal.

         In the summer of 2011DHSS began to change Rogers's work requirements. Some changes appear to be related to the goals in the June 2011 evaluation; these included expanding Rogers's duties to encompass training in the Medicaid Waiver review process. The parties disagreed about why Rogers's duties increased: Rogers asserted that it was retaliation by Walker, while DHSS contended that it was part of an effort to cross-train her and make better use of her education. Rogers points to a tasks spreadsheet that she and management developed, which in her opinion shows she was being asked to do more than eight hours of work in a seven-and-a-half-hour day.

         The record reflects ongoing problems between Rogers and Walker relating to a variety of issues: unexplained absences, Rogers's use of her time while at work, the way she processed incomplete long-term care authorization requests, and her willingness to accept supervision and follow the chain of command.

         2. Disability accommodations requests

         In July 2011 Rogers requested an evaluation of her work station because of "increased neck and hand pain, . . . with numbness, tingling and loss of strength in both hands." An outside company conducted an ergonomic evaluation of Rogers's work station and recommended modifications, some of which DHSS provided. Rogers was later in two car accidents, and her work station was again evaluated. One recommendation - now a point of contention - was an adjustable desk.

         In May 2012, after suffering an attack of Meniere disease which she said was triggered by stress, Rogers filed a request for disability accommodation related to the disease. DHSS did not grant the exact accommodations she requested, but it did provide her with an electronic tablet to help with the hearing impairment that is sometimes a symptom of the disease.

         Rogers also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though she did not disclose it to her employer until early 2013. According to Rogers, she had no reason to tell DHSS about the condition until problems arose with the rearrangement of her office furniture. She testified that when she returned to work after the Presidents Day holiday in February 2013, she found her desk rearranged so that her back was to the door; she said that working in this position would trigger her PTSD. She and a coworker "reoriented" the desk to face the door. According to Rogers, Walker was displeased and told her the desk had to be turned around. Rogers went to Jamieson, Walker's superior, and explained why she could not work with her back to the door; Rogers testified that Jamieson "allowed [her] to keep [her] desk properly oriented for [her] safety." But Rogers asked Jamieson not to discuss her PTSD diagnosis with others at DHSS.

         Rogers had a disciplinary suspension in March 2013, and when she returned to work on April 1 her desk was again oriented with her back to the door. On the door was a notice forbidding the rearrangement of furniture; an email from Hunter explained that Rogers's "furniture configuration had taken up almost the entire office and the second employee [sharing the office] was confined to one corner of the room. Now the space is more appropriately split." When Rogers complained to Jamieson, Jamieson told her to "work with [her] supervisors on th[is] type[] of request[]." Hunter and Walker learned of Rogers's PTSD diagnosis at this point, and Rogers formally notified them of it on April 2, explaining that her "confidentiality [had] already been breached." She was given paperwork to begin an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations request, and DHSS offered to allow her to work in another office in the meantime. In an email to Walker, Rogers declined "the offer of an interim change in offices" because the desk in the other office was not adjustable but said she would move "if that is still your instruction." She submitted the ADA paperwork for an accommodation related to her PTSD, and on April 12 DHSS agreed to grant her accommodation request.

         3. Discipline history

         Rogers was the subject of progressive discipline a number of times. She was given a Letter of Expectation in March 2008 related to her use of work time, and in April 2009 she received a Letter of Warning about inappropriate communication with her supervisor. She filed a grievance through her union related to the Letter of Warning, contending that the underlying issue was simply "a communications problem" between her and Walker. The grievance was still unresolved when Rogers was fired in 2013.

         In November 2011 Rogers was reprimanded in part because she "failed to follow specific instructions to not discuss" a disciplinary process "with anyone outside of [her] supervisory chain of command or union representation"; she had sent an email to the supervisor of another employee who had filed a complaint about her to document what she considered to be inappropriate behavior by that employee. Rogers was given another Letter of Warning in February 2012 because of her use of unscheduled leave and her failure to follow instructions, and she filed a grievance about this letter. In November 2012 and again in March 2013 she was suspended because of difficulties completing her work, the first time for 5 days and the second for 15 days. Again, she grieved the suspensions through her union.

         During the second suspension, staff who were covering Rogers's work discovered a large number of incomplete long-term care authorization requests in her office that had not been reported to her supervisors. In a later interview Rogers acknowledged that "[t]here were 153 all together," and she explained she "could have finished them but [she] was not allowed to do the facilities' share of the work." She said that in the past she had "completed the facilities' share of the work if they were more than a couple weeks behind in getting payment" and that she "viewed it as part of [her] j ob-to get long-term care authorization completed whether or not the information was provided by the long-term care facility or whether [she] called them to get the correct information from them." This was contrary to established practice; Rogers had been instructed before that it was up to the providers to make necessary corrections to their paperwork.

         Rogers was fired on April 12, 2013 - the same day DHSS granted her request for accommodation related to her PTSD-following a contentious investigatory interview. Through her union she filed a grievance contesting the termination. In June 2013 the union settled all of the grievances, including the other four that were pending at the time of her termination: the union withdrew the grievances in exchange for DHSS's agreement to pay Rogers $3, 800 and remove a performance evaluation for 2011-12 from her records.

         B. Proceedings

         On April 5, 2013, a week before her termination, Rogers filed a complaint with the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights (ASCHR). Shortly afterwards she filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which investigated the complaint, concluded that it was unable to establish any violations of the relevant statutes, and in August 2014 gave Rogers a "Right to Sue" letter.

         Rogers, through counsel, filed suit against DHSS, alleging several causes of action: breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, failure to provide reasonable accommodations, wrongful termination, retaliation, and discrimination based on disability and age.[3] DHSS answered and moved for summary judgment, which the superior court granted. The court observed that a wrongful termination claim required proof of either a breach of contract or a tort. It decided that Rogers's union settlement barred any claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It decided that the statute of limitations had run on a claim for failure to reasonably accommodate any disabilities except PTSD, and that DHSS had reasonably accommodated that disability. The court decided that Rogers had established a prima facie case of disability discrimination, that DHS S had carried its burden of demonstrating that it had a legitimate reason for firing her, and that Rogers had failed to show ...


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