Michelle Luebbert worked for a man who enjoyed copious amounts of pornography on his work computer, so she decided to do something about it. Determined that she no longer should be subjected to the sights and sounds emanating from her boss' office, Luebbert complained to higher ups. And they took immediate action . . . by firing her.
Now Luebbert is suing to get her job back, plus damages. If a jury sides with her, Luebbert's bank account should take a nice bump. And her former employer--the Webster Electric Cooperative in southwest Missouri--will have a spot in the Workplace Dunderheads Hall of Fame.
As someone who was fired for writing a progressive blog about matters of public interest--on my own time, with my own resources--I'm not easily shocked by workplace stupidity. But even I was left with my mouth agape as I read about Luebbert's experience at the rural utility company in Webster County, near Marshfield, Missouri. Here is how the Springfield News-Leader reported on Luebbert's lawsuit against General Manager Thomas E. Houston, the cooperative, and its board members:
Luebbert, who worked at the cooperative since 2002, said in her suit that the board of directors fired her on Sept. 21, after she complained to them about Houston watching pornography in his office. Workers could see his screen through an open door. She was manager of accounting and finance at the time of the firing.
"His viewing progressively became more frequent and active, the extent of which was pervasive, continuous and offensive," her attorney Jay Kirksey wrote in the suit. The day before she was fired, the suit says, Luebbert "was offered a settlement if she would remain quiet as to Defendant Houston's conduct."
They offered to pay her off if she stayed quiet? I'd say things aren't looking real great for the utility folks at the moment. And get this?
Kirksey wrote that it got so difficult in the office that women would purposefully step on a metal grate near Houston's door in hopes the sound of someone approaching would get him to switch the screen. Kirksey also said the women used weather terms to refer to their chances of catching Houston watching pornography.
If "humidity was 90 percent" and the "barometric pressure was rising," that must have meant the boss was having a jolly good time in PornLand.
A law firm representing Webster Electric Cooperative issued a public statement about the controversy. My guess is that the utility will try to portray Luebbert as an employee who had "performance deficiencies," even though she had worked there for almost 10 years.
I know all about that lowdown sort of strategy. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where I worked for 19 years until being fired in May 2008, filed documents in my ongoing federal lawsuit claiming I was fired because of performance issues.
How ugly can it get when employers try to cover their tracks after cheating an employee out of his or her job? Well, I can show that multiple current and former UAB managers perjured themselves in sworn statements about the reasons for my termination. In UAB's response to my lawsuit, my former supervisor made all sorts of claims about my alleged declining performance. But when Pam Powell was asked at my university grievance hearing to provide evidence supporting such claims, she could not produce a single piece of paper from my file, or anywhere else. She also could not explain why she had given me a positive performance review just a few months before firing me.
Powell went so far as to claim that one of my clients, Alumni Affairs director Becky Watson, had complained about my performance. When I produced an e-mail in which Watson wrote glowingly about my work for her office . . . well, Powell didn't have an answer for that one.
I recite these facts from my own case to illustrate the kind of stunts that probably will be pulled against Luebbert. Based on what we know at the moment, the Webster Electric Cooperative would be smart to settle the lawsuit as quickly and quietly as possible.
If the utility's managers were smart, of course, they would not be in this position in the first place.
Here is a copy of the complaint in Michelle Luebbert's lawsuit:
Michelle Luebbert Lawsuit