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Leyden v. American Accreditation Healthcare Comm'n

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 18, 2015


For Christine G. Leyden, Plaintiff: Edward James Leyden, LEYDEN LAW LLC, Bowie, MD USA.

For American Accreditation Healthcare Commission/Urac, Defendant: Kathleen M. Williams, LEAD ATTORNEY, EPSTEIN, BECKER & GREEN, P.C., Washington, DC USA.


CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Christine Leyden was terminated by the American Accreditation Healthcare Commission (" URAC" ), a private, non-profit organization that accredits healthcare plans and providers. She alleges she was fired after voicing concerns that new management was mistreating female executives and that two URAC board members were engaged in conduct that she thought jeopardized the organization's independence. Leyden has brought suit to challenge her termination, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation under federal and District of Columbia laws; breach of implied contract and promissory estoppel based on the anti-retaliation provisions of two URAC personnel policies; and wrongful discharge under the " public policy" exception to the at-will employment doctrine. URAC has moved to dismiss all of Leyden's claims, arguing that it exercised its right to fire her as an at-will employee who disagreed with the new direction of the organization. Because Leyden has pled sufficient facts to support her discrimination, retaliation, implied contract, and promissory estoppel claims, the Court will deny URAC's motion as to those claims. The Court will grant URAC's motion to dismiss Leyden's wrongful discharge claim, however, because she has not pled sufficient facts to support application of the public policy exception to this case.

I. Background

The following facts are drawn from Leyden's Amended Complaint and are taken as true for the purpose of resolving this motion. Defendant URAC is a tax-exempt organization that offers accreditation and certification programs to managed care health plans, healthcare providers, and pharmacies. Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 21-22. More than 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have " deemed" that URAC accreditation satisfies eligibility requirements in numerous healthcare regulations, including requirements for participation in the insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. Id. ¶ ¶ 23, 25. In many states, URAC must accredit a managed care entity in order for it to receive an insurance license. Id. ¶ 34.

Leyden, a registered nurse with a master's degree in community nursing, joined URAC in 2000. Before she was terminated, she had risen through the ranks to become Chief Accreditation Officer, reporting directly to the Chief Executive Officer. Id. ¶ 43. In that capacity, Leyden oversaw URAC's accreditation programs and standards. Id. Leyden did not have a formal employment agreement. Id. ¶ 45.

Leyden's suit is rooted in two sets of allegations. First, in June 2012, URAC hired William Vandervennet as its new Chief Operating Officer. Id. ¶ 77. Leyden had sought the position but was passed over. Id. In the ensuing months, Leyden alleges that Vandervennet and his newly-installed deputy, Vernon Rowen, reduced her job responsibilities by eliminating her prior direct access to the board of directors. Id. ¶ 86. Leyden further alleges that they replaced other female executives with younger men and denigrated and physically intimidated her and other female executives who disagreed with them. Id. ¶ ¶ 82, 89-90. As a result, Leyden contends, other women in the office complained to her about Vandervennet fostering an " Old Boys' Network" environment. Id. ¶ 93. Those complaints, according to Leyden, prompted URAC's human resources director to question Leyden as to whether she had described Vandervennet in that manner. Id. ¶ 94. Leyden denied having used that particular term but told the human resources director that she nonetheless agreed with the characterization. Id. ¶ 95.

Second, Leyden contends that before she was fired she had raised concerns about what she perceived as improper conduct on the part of two members of URAC's board, which is drawn from companies in the managed care industry. She alleges she complained that URAC's board chair had sought improper access to business and financial information submitted to URAC by managed care companies, id. ¶ 49, and attempted to influence URAC's accreditation review of his company, UnitedHealth, id. ¶ 54. She also alleges that she objected to the vice-chair of the board's purported involvement in negotiations between URAC and her own company over the terms of a potential contract to provide accreditation services. Id. ¶ 107. Leyden contends that the board members' conduct violated URAC's conflict of interest policy and jeopardized the independence of its accreditation decisions.

Leyden was terminated in January 2013. Id. ¶ 122. She challenged the termination in a timely charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the D.C. Office of Human Rights. Id. ¶ ¶ 11, 12. After receiving a notice of her right to sue, Leyden brought, and later amended, this nine-count complaint. Her amended complaint alleges gender discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (" Tile VII" ) and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (" DCHRA" ) (Counts 1, 2, 8, and 9); breach of implied contract and promissory estoppel based on two URAC personnel policies (Counts 3, 4, 5, and 6); and wrongful termination based on the " public policy" exception to the at-will employment doctrine recognized by District of Columbia courts (Count 7). URAC has moved to dismiss all of Leyden's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. The Court held a hearing on the motion on January 21, 2015.

II. Legal Standards

A motion to dismiss must be granted if the allegations in the complaint do not " contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). In order to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must have alleged facts that would establish the defendant's liability. See Stokes v. Cross, 327 F.3d 1210, 1215, 356 U.S.App.D.C. 73 (D.C. Cir. 2003). Although the Court must accept the facts pled as true, legal allegations devoid of factual support are not entitled to this assumption. See Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276, 305 U.S.App.D.C. 60 (D.C. Cir. 1994).

III. Analysis

A. Discrimination and Retaliation ...

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