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Ex-Employee Sues Former State Health Officer

Source: Bismarck Tribune, April 11-313, 2002

By DEENA WINTER, Bismarck Tribune

A former state Health Department administrator is suing North Dakota's former state health officer and another administrator, claiming they forced her out of the department.

Pam Vukelic, the former director of the Health Department's disease control division, has filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court against former state health officer Murray Sagsveen and Darleen Bartz, section chief for the preventative health section.

Vukelic was director of the department's disease control division when her job was eliminated and duties transferred to Larry Shireley, the state epidemiologist, as part of a "reorganization" in May 2000. At the time, Sagsveen told the Associated Press that the change was made to reduce administrative overhead.

Vukelic's lawsuit claims that after she was reassigned, she met with Shireley and her "only assignment was to complete a performance review of a single employee." From then on, she said she was "stripped of all authority and given no meaningful work assignments." Her first assignment from Shirely was clerical work: making a simple list of phone numbers of medical professionals, the lawsuit claims.

Her complaint alleges that her computer was removed from her office, she was denied entry to her office after hours, and she was placed on administrative leave and ordered not to visit the Health Department offices or contact personnel within the division of disease control. The lawsuit says her computer was later returned, but without access to word processing files. She also claims all of her electronic mail messages had been opened and read.

Vukelic's suit claims that up until then, her performance evaluations had been excellent, including the most recent one, in May 1999, which was endorsed by Sagsveen.

Vukelic's reassignment -- and Sagsveen's management style -- became the subject of numerous Bismarck Tribune stories and letters to the editor.

In July 2000, Vukelic claims she was summoned to the governor's office and presented with a severance agreement that required her to waive any claims against the Health Department, but she refused to sign it. In August 2000, she accepted a job with the Bismarck school district, where her attorney said she now teaches home economics at Bismarck High School.

The lawsuit contends that Sagsveen and Bartz retaliated against Vukelic for exercising her constitutional rights to free speech and deprived her of due process. It claims she was subjected to humiliation, oppression and intolerable working conditions and stripped of all authority and meaningful work -- leading to her resignation. She also claims a letter Sagsveen sent to the Tribune and others contained defamatory statements and false allegations that injured her reputation.

The lawsuit claims Sagsveen and Bartz's "outrageous conduct" toward Vukelic inflicted emotional distress that manifested itself in crying, insomnia, continuous severe headaches, weight loss and humiliation. The lawsuit seeks lost wages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys fees and other costs and expenses.

In an interview, Vukelic's attorney, Patricia Monson of Fargo, said it was clear that Sagsveen and Bartz wanted Vukelic to leave.

"They just made it very difficult for her to work there," Monson said. "They forced her to resign."

She said a number of Vukelic's former coworkers have come forward and been "very helpful." Monson said the employees described the Health Department environment as "one of fear and intimidation and manipulation and total control" at the time.

Bartz and Sagsveen are represented by the attorney general's office, and in its answer to the lawsuit, they deny the allegations, deny any laws or constitutional rights were violated and claim statutory immunity. They also say Vukelic failed to exhaust her administrative remedies ask that the complaint be dismissed.

Tag Anderson, assistant attorney general, said Bartz and Sagsveen's actions were "within the scope of employment."

"Murray and Darleen certainly view the complaint as being without merit," Anderson said.

Anderson said Bartz still works for the Health Department, and Sagsveen, who resigned from the Health Department in December 2000, now lives in Minnesota.

A jury trial has been scheduled for March 2003.

(Reach Deena Winter at 250-8251 or mailto:deena.winter@bismarcktribune.com.)