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Watts v. Lyon County Ambulance Service

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

June 2, 2014


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For Kenneth Watts, Plaintiff: Edwin A. Jones, Boehl Stopher & Graves, LLP - Paducah, Paducah, KY.

For Lyon County Ambulance Service, Rod Murphy, Anthony Young, Steve Gilland, Lilburn Ann Denny, John Sims, Defendants: R. Brent Vasseur, LEAD ATTORNEY, Boswell Sims & Vasseur, PLLC, Paducah, KY.

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Thomas B. Russell, Senior United States District Judge.

This matter is before the Court upon Defendants Lyon County Ambulance Service, Rod Murphy, Anthony Young, Steve Gilland, Lilburn Ann Denney, and John Sims' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 54.) Plaintiff Kenneth Watts has responded, (Docket No. 58), and Defendants have replied, (Docket No. 60). This matter now is ripe for adjudication. For the reasons that follow, the Court will GRANT Defendants' Motion and enter summary judgment in their favor.


This litigation arises from the termination of Plaintiff Kenneth Watts' employment with the Lyon County Ambulance Service (Ambulance Service). Watts was first employed by the Ambulance Service in September 2008 as a part-time paramedic. Watts became the interim Executive Director of the Ambulance Service beginning September 1, 2009, and officially became Executive Director in May 2010. As Director, Watts was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Ambulance Service and reported directly to the Ambulance Service Board, the governing body of the Ambulance Service. The Board is comprised of five board members. At all times pertinent to this litigation, Defendant Murphy was the Board's chairman and Defendants Young, Gilland, Denney, and Sims were members of the Board.

At the June 2, 2011, Board meeting, Gilland moved to vacate the position of Director, and Young seconded. This, in effect, terminated Watts' employment with the Ambulance Service. The Board appointed Adam Lyons to replace Watts, and Lyons officially became Executive Director on September 12, 2011.

Each of the Defendants has submitted an affidavit stating that Watts was terminated for a history of performance issues and failure to follow the Board's directives. (Docket Nos. 54-2, at 3, 7, 9; 54-3, at 4; 54-4, at 3.) Defendants cite among those issues as problems with lost Medicare reimbursement checks, problems between Watts and the company contracted to provide billing services to the Ambulance Service, a lack of timeliness and/or failure in implementing the Board's requests, Watts' not being forthcoming with the Board, and

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incorrectly filled out run forms. Each of these issues is summarized below.

The Medicare checks issue

In June 2010, the Ambulance Service moved to a different physical location. Around the end of 2010, Watts contacted Murphy regarding a Medicare form that needed to be signed immediately to ensure that Medicare would pay the Ambulance Service for certain services rendered. Medicare payments comprise approximately 60% of the Ambulance Service's income. According to Murphy, this problem arose because Watts had failed to notify the appropriate organizations of the Ambulance Service's change of address. Murphy states that after Medicare terminated its payments, it required that any past due payments be mailed to a physical address. Murphy further states that Watts was responsible for putting up a mailbox at the Ambulance Service's new location but still had not done so as of December 2010. Because there was no mailbox at the physical address, the Medicare checks were returned and went missing.

Murphy says he provided Watts contact information for an individual in the office of U.S. Congressman Ed Whitfield from whom Watts could seek help in resolving the issue of the returned Medicare checks. Watts does not recall Murphy providing him that contact but acknowledges, " He could have." (Docket No. 54-5, at 54.) Watts admits he never contacted this individual in an attempt to procure the missing payments. At the February 2011 Board meeting, the Board learned that the Ambulance Service had not yet received some $90,000 in Medicare checks. Murphy then went to Congressman Whitfield's office himself and spoke with an employee, Andrea P'Poole, who was able to resolve the issue within a few days.

The 911 Billing issue

The Ambulance Service contracted for billing services with a company called 911 Billing. According to his testimony, Watts understood the Medicare check issue to be a mistake on 911 Billing's part. Watts also states that he had issues with 911 Billing regarding what he perceived as inefficiency by 911 Billing. Murphy says that in January 2011 Watts convinced the Board that 911 Billing was in breach of its contract with the Ambulance Service for failing to respond to Watts' inquiries and failing to provide necessary training for him. The Board then authorized its attorney to write a letter to 911 Billing stating that the billing service was in breach of contract.

Representatives from 911 Billing attended the Board's February 2011 meeting. At that meeting, 911 Billing provided the Board a number of emails between itself and Watts. These emails showed that the billing service had provided Watts an entry log each week and had been in regular contact with Watts regarding training and other issues. These emails also indicated that the billing service had failed to receive responses from Watts to many of its communications.

According to Murphy, it became obvious to the Board that Watts had been untruthful about the billing service being in breach of contract. The Board's attorney apologized to 911 Billing, acknowledging that it was clear he and the Board had made a mistake. Murphy says that when Watts was given a chance for rebuttal at that meeting, he responded, " I am not prepared to talk right now." (Docket No. 54-6, at 4.)

Watts states that his efforts to point out 911 Billing's inefficiencies were met with anger by Murphy because of Murphy's " budding friendship and/or other relationship(s) with 911 Billing Services employee

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Beverly Basham Simmons." (Docket No. 58, at 2.) Watts insists that despite claiming the relationship with Simmons was " totally professional," there was more to Murphy's relationship with Simmons. (Docket No. 58, at 2-3.) Watts posits that " Murphy was able to get the other members of the Board to side with him on the issues pertaining to 911 Billing Services in order to protect the continued employment of his 'special friend' at 911 Billing Services." (Docket No. 58, at 2.)

Other issues

Defendants raise a number of additional issues relative to Watts' performance as Director. First, Murphy testified that after the February 2011 meeting, the Board " started looking into every aspect of what was going on," and found that the accounting service used by the Ambulance Service also was having trouble contacting Watts. (Docket No. 54-6, at 4.) Watts testified that he had a good relationship with the accounting service and " wasn't aware of any problems." (Docket No. 58-1, at 25, 27.)

Second, Murphy states that Watts, while Director, was expected to participate in emergency runs multiple times per week in order to assess the paramedics and EMTs he supervised. Contrary to this expectation, however, Murphy says that Watts " only made a handful of runs" while Director. (Docket No. 54-3, at 3.) According to Murphy, Watts was confronted sometime after the February 2011 meeting and asked how many runs he had participated in during the prior month. Murphy says that Watts responded he had been on roughly seventeen runs; the run records, however, showed that Watts had only been on one run. In his deposition, Watts acknowledged that his name would appear on a run report if he had been part of that run, but he could not recall with any specificity either the approximate or average number of runs he participated in while Director. ( See Docket No. 54-5, at 20-21.) Watts also acknowledged that the Board came to him with complaints about the run reports. ( See Docket No. 54-5, at 48.)

Third, after the Ambulance Service moved locations, the Board asked Watts to obtain a sign for the front of the Ambulance Service's new building. Watts acknowledged in his deposition that the Board had instructed him to obtain a sign for the new facility. (Docket No. 54-5, at 58.) Watts also conceded that despite the Ambulance Service having moved to its new location in July 2010, he still had not obtained a sign as of June 2011.

Fourth, Murphy states that in May 2011, he arranged a training session with 911 Billing Services for the Ambulance Service's employees. Murphy says that he intended to use this training as an opportunity to get Watts and Simmons, the 911 Billing Services employee who had presented the emails at the February 2011 Board meeting, to work together. Murphy testified that Watts " shook his finger in my face and said that he was director and he was in charge." (Docket No. 54-6, at 13.) Watts characterizes this incident as an " occasion where [Murphy] was embarrassed by [Watts] in front of his special friend, which magnified his anger toward [Watts] and increased his motivation to terminate [Watts] based on his gender." (Docket No. 58, at 6.)

Watts' claims

In his original Complaint, Watts set forth eight claims based on the termination of his employment with the Ambulance Service:

Count 1: sex discrimination and/or creation of a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ;

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Count 2: unlawful discharge in violation of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3730;
Count 3: sex discrimination and/or creation of a hostile work environment in violation of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, Ky. Rev. Stat. § 344.010 et seq. ;
Count 4: breach of contract;
Count 5: slander;
Count 6: civil conspiracy;
Count 7: tortious interference with a contract;
Count 8: unlawful discharge in violation of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulation 45 C.F.R. § 160.316.

By Order of February 12, 2013, the Court granted in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and dismissed original Counts 2 (unlawful discharge in violation of the False Claims Act) and 8 (unlawful discharge in violation of HIPAA regulations). (Docket No. 26.) Watts thereafter amended his Complaint to add counts for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, a group tort of outrage/intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) against all Defendants, and an individual tort of outrage/IIED against Murphy. ( See Docket No. 51.) Thus, after the Court's Order of partial dismissal and under Watts' Amended Complaint, the following claims remain:

Count 1: sex discrimination and/or creation of a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ;
Count 2: sex discrimination and/or creation of a hostile work environment in violation of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, Ky. Rev. Stat. § 344.010 et seq. ;
Count 3: breach of contract;
Count 4: slander;
Count 5: civil conspiracy;
Count 6: tortious interference with a contract;
Count 7: wrongful discharge in violation of public policy;
Count 8: group tort of outrage/IIED;
Count 9: individual tort of outrage/IIED.

The crux of the majority of Watts' claims is that Murphy solicited former Ambulance Service employees Sara Maki and Sarah Mink-Taylor to levee false sexual harassment claims against Watts in exchange for reemployment with the Ambulance Service. Watts specifically alleges that " Murphy, acting alone or in concert with one or more of the other defendants in this action, conspired to fabricate false statements relating to a purported sexual harassment claim(s) . . . to damage [Watts'] reputation and provide justification for terminating Watt's [sic] employment." (Docket No. 58, at 6-7.)

Both Maki and Mink-Taylor have been deposed in this matter. Maki was hired by the Ambulance Service as an EMT in 2007. (Docket No. 58-2, at 5.) While employed there, she worked with both Watts and Mink-Taylor. Maki was terminated at Watts' recommendation in early 2011. (Docket No. 58-2, at 5.) Mink-Taylor began working for the Ambulance Service as a paramedic in 2006. (Docket No. 58-7, at 4.) Mink-Taylor was terminated on March 14, 2011. (Docket No. 58-7, at 5.) Mink-Taylor was called back to cover one shift when the Ambulance Service was shorthanded sometime in May 2011. (Docket No. 58-7, at 5, 11.) She did not receive a higher rate of pay for this shift than she had previously earned. (Docket No. 58-7, at 7.) Mink-Taylor testified she was not called back again and was not rehired by the Ambulance Service. (Docket No. 58-7, at 5, 11.)

Maki testified that she was contacted first by Mink-Taylor, ...

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