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Ex-Cooley Dickinson executive Mary-Ellen Just sues hospital

Cooley Dickinson Hospital Monday afternoon.

JERREY ROBERTS Cooley Dickinson Hospital Monday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

Mary-Ellen Just, the hospital’s former executive director of Cooley Dickinson Practice Associates, is seeking $249,000 in back pay and benefits, as well as lost future pay, damages for emotional distress, the recovery of legal fees, and punitive damages against the hospital, according to a complaint filed in Hampshire Superior Court.

The civil action comes one month after a Hampshire County jury ruled in favor of a former CDH nurse who claimed she had been sexually harassed by an emergency room physician and then wrongfully fired when she reported the abuse. In that case, Jillian Brown of South Deerfield was awarded $215,000. Hospital officials stated they planned to appeal the decision.

Just, of Wethersfield, Conn., and formerly of Leverett, had been hired as executive director of Cooley Dickinson Practice Associates in September 2008 and was fired two years later after a series of medical issues and surgeries kept her out of work at various times during that span. She earned an annual salary of more than $200,000 with performance bonuses, according to her Springfield attorney Keith A. Minoff, who said the allegations in the complaint speak for themselves. She has since found new employment in the health care industry, though at a lower salary and with fewer benefits, according to the lawsuit.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital officials said Friday they had not yet been served the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 5, and declined to comment on it.

According to the lawsuit, Just underwent shoulder surgery one month after she received her first performance evaluation in which she exceeded expectations. She was out of work two weeks and then for another week in April 2009 for an unrelated surgical procedure. The following month, the lawsuit alleges, Craig Melin, the hospital’s president and chief executive officer “made a comment to Ms. Just about her absences from work resulting from her surgeries.”

Later in the year, Just underwent spinal fusion surgery, which kept her out of work for about six weeks, a leave approved by Cooley Dickinson under the Family and Medical Leave Act. She returned to work and over a six-week period increased her work schedule from 20 hours to 40 hours per week. She claims her work environment became hostile when she returned, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint states that comments had been made by senior management about her medical condition and related absences and that management had conducted “unmerited investigations into her conduct based on unfounded complaints from disgruntled employees who had recently resigned or been terminated from the Cooley Dickinson Practice Associates.”

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that Wil Smith, the hospital’s vice-president of human resources, helped created a hostile work environment for Just by stating in February 2010 that she was “on a path to termination.”

A month prior to that alleged statement, in January 2010, Melin had completed a 2009 Leadership Performance Evaluation of Just in which she was found to have exceeded and met expectations in all but one area, according to the lawsuit.

The evaluation of Just referred to her earlier medical leaves and absences, stating that her “health and attendance issues” had made it “a bit harder” for her to complete her work on a five-year strategic plan.

In July 2010, two months before she was fired, Just informed Melin that she had been diagnosed with another synovial cyst on her spine, which would require surgery later in the year. Two months later, Melin informed Just that she had done an “excellent job” in leading the Cooley Dickinson Practice Associates but that she did not meet the “BECOME values” of the hospital.

Those values stand for build partners, extend trust, change now, own it, model excellence, and exceed expectations, according to a description from hospital literature.

A week later, on Sept. 7, Just received a letter from Melin stating that she was being let go immediately and that “this decision has been reached due to failure to successfully complete the six-month performance improvement plan.” The lawsuit alleges the reasons cited by the hospital for Just’s firing was “a pretext for discrimination on the basis of handicap.”

Just claims that had she not been terminated, she would have been eligible to receive short-term and long-term disability insurance benefits and other benefits as a participant in Cooley Dickinson’s employee welfare benefit plans as long as she remained disabled. She earlier filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, but withdrew the complaint and instead filed a civil lawsuit.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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