Former HHSC employees, including state rep’s wife, sue for wrongful termination

Gavel - KXAN File

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two former high-ranking Texas Health and Human Services Commission directors, including the wife of a longstanding state representative, have sued the massive state agency for wrongful termination, according to a lawsuit filed in Travis County District Court.

Dimitria Pope, former director of HHSC’s Medical Transportation Program, and Shannon Pickett, associate director of the program, allege they were fired shortly after reporting violations of law by HHSC to the agency’s Office of Inspector General, according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 28, 2017.

Pickett is married to State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Environmental Regulation Committee and member of the House Transportation Committee. Pope is a longtime state-level administrator.

Pope and Pickett said they twice reported violations of law by HHSC. First, they reported the alleged violations to the HHSC Inspector General. They again reported violations to the HHSC Inspector General as well as the Office of the Attorney General in late September and early October 2017, the lawsuit states.

Pope’s and Pickett’s attorney, Manuel Quinto-Pozos, said the reports made by his clients to the HHSC OIG and Texas AG were related to transportation provided to minors by contractors of the agency.

If a patient is a minor, there are requirements that the transportation provider and medical services provider, such as a doctor, must comply with. There has to be either a parent or guardian present when transportation is provided or some documented authorization for the transportation, he said.

“It became clear that some of the requirements had not been fulfilled, and that is primarily what they were reporting,” Quinto-Pozos told KXAN.

Pope and Pickett said they were not given a reason for their “immediate terminations,” and they believe HHSC fired them because of their reports, according to the lawsuit.

HHSC terminated Pope’s and Pickett’s employment on Oct. 4, 2017, according to hand delivered termination letters obtained by KXAN.

“My decision to dismiss you, made in consultation with Human Resources and agency legal counsel, is based on lawful business reasons.”

“My decision to dismiss you, made in consultation with Human Resources and agency legal counsel, is based on lawful business reasons,” said the termination letter from State Medicaid Director Jami Snyder. “Your computer access will be cancelled today, as well as any state issued identification and building access cards. Please return all equipment issued to you by HHSC, including cell phones, calling cards etc., by 5:00 today.”

HHSC declined to comment on the reasons for terminating Pope and Pickett’s employment, beyond offering the letters of termination.

Pope and Pickett—both of whom have been employed by the state for years—are seeking injunctive relief requiring HHSC to “reinstate them at their former positions of employment, with all benefits and emoluments of their position.” They are also seeking a prohibition of any future retaliation or harassment. In addition, Pope and Pickett seek monetary damages between $200,000 and $1,000,000, along with attorney’s fees and expenses, according to the lawsuit.

Pope worked as an HHSC executive for eight years, according to the lawsuit. She previously worked as acting executive director of the troubled Texas Youth Commission and resigned in 2008, according to news reports. She was also employed as a director at the Texas Adult Probation Commission in the 1980s and as a director at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the 1990s and 2000s, according to job application materials obtained by KXAN.

Pickett is a licensed attorney. She previously worked as a special counsel at HHSC and deputy parliamentarian for the Texas House of Representatives in 2009, among several other previous positions with private law firms and companies, according to her HHSC job application materials.

Pickett’s latest job performance evaluation from June 2017, which was signed off by Pope, was excellent. Pope’s job evaluation from October of 2015, which was the latest available from HHSC, was also positive, according to records obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.

Editors note, a previous version of this story attributed the termination letter directly to Executive Commissioner Charles Smith. That attribution has been changed to note the letter came from State Medicaid Director Jami Snyder.

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