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The Fitch Files: Federal Lawsuit Reveals Fraud, Sexual Harassment at UConn Health

Christine Cieplinski was an attorney and employee of the state of Connecticut for 17 years, moving from the Office of Policy and Management to become Director of Labor Relations at UConn Health in 2014.

But all that ended when she investigated and secured the resignation of a UConn Health employee who had cost the state $100,000 in fraudulent compensatory time and investigated sexual harassment allegations against a highly-regarded professor.

That’s when she faced retaliation by UConn Health executives and union representatives, according to a federal lawsuit filed in September of 2018 against UConn Health, UConn Health CEO Andrew Agwunobi, Vice President of Human Relations John Peeples and Dean of the School of Medicine Bruce Liang.

Cieplinski alleges she was discriminated against based on her gender because she was paid less than her male counterparts and was retaliated against due to her handling of the fraud and sexual harassment cases.

UConn Health has faced criticism from lawmakers over the past year for lax financial oversight and its handling of medical care for Connecticut inmates, which resulted in the Department of Correction ending their inmate healthcare contract with the state’s premier university health system.

Cieplinski originally filed a complaint with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities but was released from jurisdiction to file her discrimination case in federal court.

The Fraud Investigation

According to the lawsuit, in March of 2016 UConn’s Labor Relations Office “investigated a male employee for time card fraud and substantiated significant theft of compensatory time totaling approximately one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) in fraudulent accruals and payouts.”

That employee was Jeff Dutton, according to emails between Professor Bruce J. Mayer, a union representative for the UConn Health chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and Agwunobi. 

Dutton was listed as a UCHC Professor in 2015 and earned $114,705, according to Connecticut’s transparency website.

Mayer vigorously defended Dutton and wrote to UConn Health CEO Andrew Agwunobi that the compensatory time issue was “a relatively minor misunderstanding about comp time for the hours Jeff spent ‘on call’ and coming into the facility off-hours to deal with power failures and other emergencies.”

According to the Human Resources investigation obtained by Yankee Institute under a Freedom of Information request, however, there was little “misunderstanding.”

Dutton had previously argued for compensation for his time wearing a pager, writing a proposal which would give him $400 per week in compensation for wearing the pager regardless of whether or not he was actually working at UConn Health, essentially adding 12 hours of compensatory time to his time sheet every week.

According to Ceiplinski’s findings, Dutton was aware his proposal was not allowed under the collective bargaining contract between UConn Health and the University Health Professionals, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

In their review of the Dutton’s written proposal, the investigators noted “Mr. Dutton admitted he had learned from then-UHP President Jean Morningstar that there was no contractual provision for compensation for wearing the pager and informed him that he should only wear the pager during work hours or not wear it at all.”

The compensatory time for wearing the pager was authorized by Doctors Ion Moraru and Leslie Loew.

In summary, Mr. Dutton is knowingly accruing compensatory time in a manner that is not provided by the bargaining unit contract. Almost all of the hours reviewed for the period of July 1, 2015 to present were for time not worked.

Human Resources Investigation

“In summary, Mr. Dutton is knowingly accruing compensatory time in a manner that is not provided by the bargaining unit contract. Almost all of the hours reviewed for the period of July 1, 2015 to present were for time not worked. In addition, some of the comp hours earned was for reason outside of his proposal such as his attendance at conferences or symposiums. Dr. Moraru directly negotiated with a bargaining unit member on a mandatory subject of bargaining and to date Mr. Dutton has been paid out over $100,000 in comp hours for which he is not eligible,” the investigation concluded.

Following the investigation, Dutton agreed to resign from UConn Health and signed a stipulated agreement forfeiting his vacation and compensation time payout in exchange for a resignation in good standing and agreeing not to file any grievances or complaints against the state.

But the investigation and resignation sparked anger among UConn Health officials, according to emails submitted as evidence to the court.

Mayer said Human Resources “intimidated a valuable long-term employee” into resigning over a “relatively minor misunderstanding.”

But in a sense it doesn’t matter what the issue was; this matter was dealt with as if we work in the DMV. We are not the DMV. We cannot be run like the DMV. This situation, a toxic combination of bean-counting and intimidation, is not acceptable.

Email from Bruce Mayer to Andrew Agwunobi 5/4/2016

“But in a sense it doesn’t matter what the issue was; this matter was dealt with as if we work in the DMV,” Mayer wrote in a May 2016 email to Agwunobi. “We are not the DMV. We cannot be run like the DMV. This situation, a toxic combination of bean-counting and intimidation, is not acceptable.”

Mayer told Agwunobi he was “not being well served by your managers in HR.”

And Mayer was not the only faculty or staff member angered by the investigation of Dutton. 

Dr. Loew, who signed off on Dutton’s compensatory time, reportedly confronted Labor Relations Specialist Lakeesha Brown who was investigating the case and accused her of being “prosecutorial” and “punitive.”

UConn Health confirmed that both Dr. Loew and Dr. Moraru remained employed with the university health facility.

UConn Health has declined to comment on any allegations specific to the lawsuit as it is still pending in court.  

Sexual Harassment of Student by Faculty

The lawsuit also brings to light UConn Health Center’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against a doctor and faculty member, referred to as “Dr. A.”

A former graduate student contacted the Office of Institutional Equity in 2016 and reported the doctor had sexually harassed her as a student. Dr. A was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by both OIE and UConn Health’s Labor Relations unit.

The accusations against Dr. A included making “repeated sex-based comments to Student A while she was a student; told her that she needed to have sex in order to feel better; sent her cards, flirtatious emails, candy and gifts; and, while at a conference, shared a hotel room with her for two nights while she was a student at UConn Health.”

The doctor argued these encounters all occurred after the student had graduated, according to the lawsuit.

Dr. A then sent an email to 18 faculty members revealing the student’s identity and revealing her accusations. Dr. A also accused investigators of not allowing him to return to UConn due to his administrative leave.

This was reportedly not the only student who faced harassment issues from Dr. A. The Labor Relations investigation also reportedly revealed that a Dr. M who was a department chair discouraged the student from making an official complaint.

Ceiplinski’s investigation into the allegations sparked anger from Dr. Bruce Liang, Dean of UConn’s School of Medicine. According to the lawsuit and emails, Liang called Cieplinski “ludicrous.”

I have never had a manager, let alone one at the level of a Dean, call me ‘ludicrous’ (in front of my staff member and my boss) in a very loud tone and then repeat ‘are you ludicrous?’

Email from Christine Cieplinski to Carolle Andrews 9/9/2016

In an Sept. 9, 2016 email from Cieplinski to Vice President of Human Resources Carolle Andrews, Cieplinksi expressed concerns about her job stability and wrote, “I have never had a manager, let alone one at the level of a Dean, call me ‘ludicrous’ (in front of my staff member and my boss) in a very loud tone and then repeat ‘are you ludicrous?’”

Andrews responded that her job was not in jeopardy but remarked that Liang “clearly is not a fan,” and that he is “not used to dealing with strong, assertive women… he’s certainly gone for my head on a number of occasions.”

Despite the student complaints and the investigations, Dr. A was then allowed to return to campus and accompany other female graduate students on out of state trips, according to the lawsuit.

UConn Health confirmed that Dr. A was the subject of a 2016 investigation by the Office of Institutional Equality. 

“That investigation did not find sufficient evidence to support a determination that Dr. A violated UConn Health’s policy prohibiting sexual harassment,” UConn Health Spokeswoman Lauren Woods wrote in an email. “It did find a violation of the university’s non-retaliation policy. The university took appropriate action at that time. He remains employed by UConn Health.”

The non-retaliation violation was because Dr. A revealed the student’s identity to others when he sent out an email naming her as his accuser.

Ceiplinski claims that if OIE had substantiated the student’s claims it would have jeopardized federal grants from the National Institute of Health.

While the OIE report did not substantiate the sexual harassment violations against Dr. A, Ciepliski’s lawsuit claims the second investigation conducted by Human Resources concluded Dr. A made “a series of egregious work rule and code of conduct violations for his actions toward two female graduate students who worked directly under his supervision.”

“The Decision to Eliminate Your Position”

Ceiplinski’s investigation into the fraudulent payout of $100,000 in compensatory time and the sexual harassment allegations began in 2016. 

By 2017, Cieplinski was out of a job under “the pretext of reorganization.”

Shortly before her layoff in January of 2017, John Peeples became Vice President of Human Resources at UConn Health after Andrews became Chief Administrative Officer for UConn Health

Peeples quickly emailed UConn Health CEO Andrew Agwunobi to indicate he believed Cieplinski sought to undermine his new role and that she would attempt to “model a hostile environment concern.”

“Although I am only 14 days into the role, I see patterns in her behavior that I believe will become problematic for me and the HR transformation,” Peeples wrote in an email dated December 2016.

The court documents contain email exchanges between Peeples and Agwunobi related to Cieplinski’s employment, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information request. However, the email exchanges have all been redacted based on attorney-client privilege.

Cieplinski was informed her position was being eliminated in January of 2017 and her lay-off date was February 3, 2017.

“It is with regret that I inform you that your appointment as Labor Relations, International Office Director is being eliminate, which will result in your layoff from UConn Health,” Peeples wrote in a January 10, 2017 letter to Cieplinski. “Please know that the decision to eliminate your position does not reflect the quality of service you have provided to UConn Health.” 

Labor Relations investigator Lakeesha Brown also no longer works for UConn Health, although it is unclear whether she left of her own accord.

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Marc E. Fitch

  1. Mary hollenbeck

    May 20, 2019 2:07 pm

    Stunning. I can provide you details of an almost identical situation taking place at this time. If interested contact me.

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