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Pritchard-Sleath v. Opper

United States District Court, D. Montana, Helena Division

March 3, 2014

RICHARD OPPER, in his official capacity as director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, KATHLEEN ZEECK, in her individual capacity, LARRY LEROUX, in his individual capacity, and the MONTANA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, Defendants.


DANA L. CHRISTENSEN, Chief District Judge.

Defendants Richard Opper, Kathleen Zeeck, Larry LeRoux, and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services ("DPHHS") move to exclude the testimony of Plaintiff Elizabeth Pritchard-Sleath's expert witness, Richard Bartos. The Court will deny Defendants' motion.

I. Factual Background

Plaintiff Elizabeth Pritchard-Sleath was hired as a psychology specialist at the Montana Developmental Center ("MDC") in April of 2009. MDC is a state operated facility that provides 24-hour care for individuals with developmental disabilities who also struggle with severe behavioral issues, mental health issues, and other self-help deficits. Plaintiff's duties included providing individualized psychological assessment, diagnoses, and treatment services to clients, including one-on-one therapy sessions. In July of 2010, Plaintiff made an urgent recommendation to Defendant Kathy Zeeck, who was the superintendant of MDC at the time, that one of her clients (Client 1922) receive 1:1 supervision since she deemed him to be a suicide risk. Zeeck took some action, but did not go as far as Plaintiff believed was necessary. Plaintiff learned that Zeeck did not follow her recommendation and in July of 2010, she sent an email to several other DPHHS employees, including a representative of Disability Rights Montana ("DRM"), stating that Zeeck's response was "in strong opposition to [her] professional clinical judgment." DRM is a federally mandated organization with the authority to pursue legal, administrative and other remedies to ensure the protection of MDC clients. Plaintiff alleges that MDC administrators resented this communication to DRM, and that it served as the catalyst for Defendants' "campaign to discredit and discipline Plaintiff, " and that this "retaliation against Plaintiff for contacts with DRM ultimately resulted in Plaintiff's termination by DPHHS." (Doc. 1 at ¶ 15.)

During her time at MDC, Plaintiff was disciplined several times, many of which she claims were in fact retaliation for her contact with DRM. In March of 2010, Plaintiff was counseled by Defendant LeRoux, her immediate supervisor, about inappropriately blurring the lines between acting as a client's advocate and acting as their therapist. LeRoux informally counseled her again in April of 2010 regarding contact with clients during non-work hours. In August of 2010, shortly after she sent her email about Client 1922, Plaintiff was given a written warning for giving gifts to clients, which is prohibited by MDC policy. During the same month, Client 1797 reported to staff that Plaintiff had made repeated and unwanted telephone calls to him over the weekend, and that Plaintiff asked him to run away from MDC and live with her. Plaintiff was immediately placed on paid administrative leave while these allegations were investigated, and in November of 2010, the DPHHS issued an administrative decision upholding the suspension. Finally, at some point during the investigation related to Client 1797, Plaintiff provided her attorney with a confidential document pertaining to one of her clients. DPHHS suspended Plaintiff for two additional days as the result of this incident after denying her grievance.

In March of 2011, MDC was subject to a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ("CMS") survey. The survey noted a multitude of deficiencies, which resulted in an "immediate jeopardy" designation. Such a designation, if not remedied, could result in the complete loss of federal funding, which constitutes approximately 80% of MDC's total budget. Plaintiff's behavior and record of misconduct was one of the reasons for the immediate jeopardy designation. The CMS team determined that Plaintiff was a risk to clients.

DPHHS dismissed Plaintiff based on the behavior discussed herein, after providing her a chance to present her side of the story. Plaintiff then filed this action, bringing claims under § 1983 against Defendant Sorrell as Director of DPHHS and Defendants Zeeck and LeRoux, and against DPHHS for negligence, conversion, and violations of Montana's Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act ("WDEA").

Plaintiff has retained Richard Bartos as an expert witness to testify that the abuse, neglect, and exploitation investigations conducted by MDC did not meet the standard of care for conducting such investigations. Mr. Bartos was formerly employed by the Department of Public Health and Human Services ("DPHHS") as the Bureau Chief of the Adult Protective Services ("APS") agency. In the time since the motion to exclude was filed and fully briefed, the Court granted Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment, dismissing the bulk of Plaintiff's claims.

II. Motion in Limine Standards

Courts have "wide discretion" in considering and ruling on motions in limine. Trichtler v. Co. of Lake, 358 F.3d 1150, 1155 (9th Cir. 2004). But a Court will grant a motion in limine and exclude evidence only if the evidence is "inadmissible on all potential grounds." BNSF Ry. v. Quad City Testing Laboratory, Inc., 2010 WL 4337827 at *1 (D. Mont. 2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). "Unless evidence meets this high standard, evidentiary rulings should be deferred until trial so that questions of foundation, relevancy and potential prejudice may be resolved in proper context." Id. (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). "This is because although rulings on motions in limine may save time, costs, effort and preparation, a court is almost always better situated during the actual trial to assess the value and utility of evidence." Id.

III. Discussion

First, to address the elephant in the room: the Court's order for summary judgment has obvious implications for Mr. Bartos's testimony at trial, although the Court will not speculate as to what those might be. In ruling on motions in limine, this Court often defers its rulings until trial because it cannot rule in the abstract, and will not speculate as to what the contours of a plaintiff's case or the specifics of an expert's testimony will be at trial. The Court's entry of partial summary judgment renders these questions even more mercurial in this case.

This Court has "the inherent power to disqualify expert witnesses to protect the integrity of the adversary process, protect privileges that otherwise may be breached, and promote public confidence in the legal system." Hewlett-Packard Co. v. EMC Corp., 330 F.Supp.2d 1087, 1092 (N.D. Cal. 2004). Generally, "courts have declined ...

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