BANGOR, Maine — Two Aroostook County women who say they were unlawfully fired from their jobs as program supervisors after they reported concerns about alleged illegal and fraudulent MaineCare billing practices have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Bangor.
Julie Ivey of Houlton and Angela Cowger of Danforth were employees in the Houlton office of Addison Point Specialized Services Inc., a federally and state-funded social services provider for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Addison Point also has offices in Addison and Waterville.
Attorney David Webbert of Augusta, who is representing Angela Cowger, said Thursday that Ivey and Cowger earned excellent performance reviews at their jobs but were abruptly fired within two working days after reporting their shared concerns to top managers. According to court documents, Cowger and Ivey made reports in 2014 that they believed Addison Point was improperly billing the Department of Health and Human Services for services that were not actually provided to clients.
According to the lawsuit, both women were told by company higher ups that the billing was proper, but when the women continued to raise concerns they were fired.
Ivey and Cowger had no prior discipline or warnings, according to Webbert, and he added that Addison Point admitted it fired Ivey and Cowger based on their reports about illegal billing. Cowger had been working at the agency since 2007 and Ivey since 2011. This lack of progressive discipline violated their employer’s own written policy requiring progressive discipline before termination, according to the lawsuit, including the three prior steps of an oral warning, written warning and a final written warning.
The Maine Human Rights Commission conducted an independent investigation and unanimously determined that there were reasonable grounds to believe Addison Point committed unlawful retaliation against Ivey and Cowger in violation of the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and the Maine Human Rights Act.
After investigating Cowger’s complaint, the MHRC found that Addison Point “could not show a legitimate reason to discharge her outside of her continued voicing of concerns regarding improper billing.”
After investigating Ivey’s complaint, the MHRC found that Cowger and Ivey were fired at the same time that they brought forth the allegations about improper billing.
“The fact that both reported what they believed was unlawful activity and both were discharged shortly after bringing forward their reports adds forward plausibility to Ivey’s claim of retaliation,” investigators noted in their report.
Webbert said the court this week granted a motion to schedule a settlement conference, and the parties are waiting for a date to be set.
“All of the parties will meet then to discuss a settlement,” he said. “If we don’t agree, we will ask for a jury trial.”
Webbert said the firing was “additionally unfair” to Cowger, who has not been able to find employment since the firing and is going back to college to secure a degree to be able to do the same work she had been doing at Addison Point.
“Cowger had a perfect record there,” her attorney said. “To fire someone who is doing their job and was a top employee and basically admit that you did it was particularly unjust.”
Ivey is being represented by Attorney John P. Gause of Bangor.
Ivey has since found work with the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, he said Thursday.
Cowger and Ivey are seeking damages, including compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at trial, back pay, lost employment benefits, other lost compensation and interest on those amounts. They also are asking that Addison Point provide effective civil rights training for all human resources employees and all supervisors on the requirements of all applicable laws prohibiting whistleblower retaliation.
As of Friday, Addison Point had not filed a response to the lawsuit with the court.
The company’s attorney, Thad Zmistowski of Bangor, did not return calls seeking comment on Friday.