A federal judge cleared the way Friday for a whistle-blower lawsuit that claims the state retaliated against two employees who refused to shred public documents while working at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. District Judge George Z. Singal ruled that Sharon Leahy-Lind and Katie Woodbury could move forward with the lawsuit claiming they were retaliated against and defamed for exercising their free speech rights. The records they refused to destroy detailed how grant criteria were being changed to benefit certain applicants competing for health program funds.

Cynthia Dill, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the ruling is significant because “there’s been some question about to what degree public officials have First Amendment rights.”

In 2013, Leahy-Lind, who was director of the CDC’s Division of Local Public Health, disclosed that she was ordered by her superiors to shred documents related to competitive grant awards in the Healthy Maine Partnerships program.

The documents shed light on irregularities and possible illegal activity in the way certain grants were awarded.

Leahy-Lind claims that she was harassed and defamed for not complying with the order. Her allegations were detailed last year in a complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“There is definitely some case law to suggest that she might not have been protected – that that speech might not have been protected – but the judge ruled in this case that it is in fact protected,” Dill said.

The ruling added Woodbury, who still works for the CDC, as a plaintiff along with Leahy-Lind. It also added Christine Zukas, the CDC deputy director, and Lisa Sockabasin, director of the Office of Health Equity, as defendants, alongside CDC Director Sheila Pinette. The complaint also names the CDC, which is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“At this time, the Department has no comment, as this is ongoing litigation,” DHHS spokeswoman Sarah Grant said in an email Friday.

A message left at the CDC for Pinette, Zukas and Sockabasin was not returned.

According to the complaint, after Leahy-Lind refused to shred the documents she was ordered repeatedly to discipline a disabled minority employee allegedly being targeted by Zukas and Sockabasin. She alleged that she was threatened in an effort to keep her from talking about the manipulation of grant applications.

The work situation caused her anxiety and made it difficult for her to breathe, the suit alleges. Leahy-Lind took a medical leave, and when she returned, her hours and duties were restricted.

Zukas, Sockabasin and Pinette also are accused of mounting a public campaign to discredit Leahy-Lind by calling her a safety threat and falsely commenting on her mental health, according to the complaint.

“Leahy-Lind has alleged more than mere insults by Pinette, Zukas and Sockabasin,” Singal wrote. “Instead, the amended complaint reveals a campaign to discredit her and break her down. Each individual action on its own may be a mere nuisance, but taken as a whole, the message was clear: Leahy-Lind was being punished for exercising her First Amendment rights.”

Woodbury, a CDC office manager, also is claiming she was retaliated against and defamed for comments she made to the Lewiston Sun Journal backing up Leahy-Lind’s claims.

According to the complaint, Zukas and Sockabasin refused to speak to or look at Woodbury. Although emails were professional, Woodbury claims personal interactions were hostile.

Leahy-Lind hopes to get her state job back. She and Woodbury are seeking compensation, punitive damages, legal fees and a declaration that they acted in a lawful manner, Dill said.

“There’s no dollar figure,” Dill said. “It’s to hold people accountable and vindicate (Leahy-Lind and Woodbury) in the eyes of the public.”

The state sought to have the case dismissed, but Singal ruled that the defamation and First Amendment retaliation claims could proceed. However, a claim relating to the Family Medical Leave Act was dismissed.

The ruling is the latest development in controversy that unfolded within the CDC after the Sun Journal published a story in April 2013.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, issued a report in December 2013 that outlined evidence that documents had been shredded in response to a Freedom of Access Act request made by the Sun Journal. OPEGA also found “strong indications” that supervisors manipulated selection criteria in the grant program to allow the Penquis health district to receive a grant of more than $600,000. The agency did not identify who ordered the document shredding.

The grant program distributed $7.5 million in 2012. The grants were reduced to $4.7 million in 2013 through a supplemental budget enacted by the previous Legislature.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, which oversees OPEGA, issued subpoenas to five CDC officials who refused to voluntarily testify before the panel to answer questions about shredding. At that March hearing, Zukas said she was ordered by Pinette to change the scoring criteria for the grants and shredded the documents, claiming she didn’t know it was illegal.

In May, the committee handed the case over to the Attorney General’s Office. However, the committee could not prove that CDC officials willfully obstructed or violated Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. Such a finding could have prompted additional inquiry and criminal charges by the Attorney General’s Office.

Committee members had heard conflicting testimony from CDC officials and could not reach a consensus on whether those officials knew they were breaking the law, or whether the documents were destroyed because of poor record retention policies.

Timothy Feeley, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said in an email Friday that “the matter is still pending.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings

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