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Faulty Tower?

A long-running suit by state employees formerly stationed in the Plaza Tower could cost the state millions.

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After seven years of class-action litigation, attorneys for 700 state health and social workers convinced a New Orleans judge to hold the state liable for exposing the employees to the moldy, leaky Plaza Tower office building for six years — despite hundreds of worker complaints. Damages for mental anguish could bring the total damage award to $35 million or more, plaintiff attorneys say, pending further litigation and interest.

The state is expected to appeal the decision, and interest on the damages continues to accrue unless the trial judge's decision is overturned.

Meanwhile, Civil District Court Judge Nadine Ramsey, who presided over the trial, also ruled that all but the five lead plaintiffs in the case must individually prove their respective damages.

Lauded by her fellow class-action members for her tenacity, Sherry Watters, one of lead plaintiffs in the suit, is a supervising attorney in the state Department of Social Services (DSS). She served as spokeswoman for the workers. Last week she acknowledged that she doesn't expect to see money from the suit any time soon, but she calls Ramsey's decision a critical moral and workers' rights victory for healthy working environments.

"By the time we see any money, my grandchildren will probably be able to fill up a tank of gas with it," Watters said, beaming with her fellow plaintiffs outside the Plaza Tower building at 1001 Howard Ave.

Wendy Lemieux, another lead plaintiff, says what's more important than cash is the judgment mandating that "state employees are human beings, that they deserve appropriate working conditions. We do hard work, and hundreds of people, foster kids, family members, were in and out of that building every day exposed to the same conditions we were."

On the issue of liability, Ramsey ruled on May 10 that the state "was aware of constant water intrusions" and should have known of "substantial mold growth affecting workers' health." Ramsey also concluded that for six years, the state "failed to conduct any substantial investigation into the matter."

Workers at the building frequently complained about physical conditions in the workplace. The complaints ranged from mold to overflowing toilets to poor air-conditioning and heating to employees trapped in elevators to wet ceiling tiles that would crash on desks. Almost a decade ago, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined the building's former owners $120,000 for asbestos violations it discovered in 1996 and 1998. The current owners now are spending $12 million on asbestos abatement, which must occur regardless of whether the tower is demolished or redeveloped.

The state workers' lawsuit did not deal with asbestos, however. It focused on mold and wet-indoor environments and the failure, as Ramsey ruled, to follow state laws requiring employers to provide employees with a "reasonably safe" working environment. The building's insurers, who were also named as defendants in the class-action suit, have already paid DSS and DHH employees more than $4.5 million to settle claims against the building.

Between 1996 and 2002, plaintiffs' lawyers say, state officials under then-Gov. Mike Foster — including then-Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) Secretary Bobby Jindal — were aware of the problems their employees were experiencing in the Plaza Tower. Jindal, coincidentally, was just establishing his bonafides as the wunderkind who ultimately would be credited with cleaning up fraud in the state's Medicare and Medicaid system.

While stationed in the building, workers involved in the lawsuit say they suffered allergic symptoms that included scalp itch, constant colds, sinus problems, constant headaches, earaches and other allergic reactions. After the state moved the DSS and DHH workers to a nearby building in early 2002 — breaking a lease worth millions to Plaza Tower — plaintiffs say their allergic symptoms disappeared.

Employees also said that their symptoms cleared up while on vacation or even on weekends. "I used to joke that I really only had one day off," Watters says. "I go home Friday and go right to sleep with my headache, Saturday was to recover from the headaches and cold symptoms from the work week, and I was usually feeling normal by Sunday." She said that Mondays always brought back her symptoms, which grew worse by the end of the week. Other workers echoed Watters' complaints.

Plaintiff attorneys Robert Creely and Mickey Landry represented the plaintiffs in the class-action suit. Creely says damages could top $35 million if, during upcoming trials on individual workers' damages, Ramsey awards the remaining class members $35,000 each.

Meanwhile, Creely complains that the state's attorney, James Bolner, refuses to negotiate a settlement. Bolner referred all questions to DSS and DHH officials, who in turn punted to the governor's office. Michael DiResto, Gov. Bobby Jindal's director of communications, declined comment, noting that it is "inappropriate to comment on an ongoing legal matter." In a hearing before Ramsey last Thursday (May 15), Bolner delivered a letter to Creely stating that the state agencies are not ready to mediate at this time.

Court records show that Bolner attempted to get a new trial after Ramsey's ruling, saying that the plaintiffs' claims are covered by Louisiana's worker's compensation law. Ramsey quickly ruled that worker's comp covers injuries resulting from accidents on the job, not exposure to toxins from negligent building upkeep.

Bolner and the plaintiffs' attorneys filed separate motions for a new trial with regard to the 695 unnamed plaintiffs' damages. Bolner, on behalf of the state, asked Ramsey to wipe out the $10,000-per-plaintiff figure she initially awarded. Creely and Landry asked her to raise it to $35,000 each. Ramsey sided with Bolner and wiped out the damage awards. If that portion of Ramsey's ruling stands, each plaintiff will have to prove his or her individual damages in separate trials.

There is perhaps another reason that Jindal, beyond the normal reluctance to comment on pending litigation, may opt not to speak about the case. While he was DHH secretary, Jindal was aware of the paper trail of complaints roiling out of the Plaza Tower.

On Feb. 10, 1997, Medicare and Medicaid screener and supervisor Mary Boudreaux, who then had been at her job for 25 years, wrote to Jindal about problems at the building. In her correspondence, Boudreaux lauded Jindal's fight against fraud and waste in the government health programs, but she also recited a litany of complaints that had been ignored by the state — daily leaks, poor air-conditioning and heating and the unresponsiveness of the building owner, DSS or DHH to do anything in response.

Boudreaux was blunt: "The staff morale is very low and there is a lot of anger and resentment. It is also a waste of funds, time and (ruined) equipment. — [We] want to stop Medicare and Medicaid fraud. — We also hope to see someone showing the same concerns for those of us who work in state government. We deserve it."

Ten days later — on Feb. 20, 1997 — Jindal responded that he was aware of the problems at Plaza Tower and ordered executive staff "to resolve these problems." He said he had instructed appropriate officials to ensure that the lessor was living up to the requirements of its lease and would act accordingly if discrepancies were found.

"Please be assured," Jindal wrote, "we appreciate our employees and will reach a resolution to this situation as soon as possible, however, know that all of the problems will not be resolved overnight."

Watters says the situation was not resolved. "DSS would point a finger at DHH and DHH at DSS," she says. "Jindal said in 1997 he was going to do something about it, but after he left, the state renewed one of the larger contracts" worth millions of dollars to the building's owners.

Each of the five lead plaintiffs in the class-action case were awarded $35,000 in damages — a figure that includes $10,000 each for mental anguish and emotional distress. Those damages earn interest from the date the suit was filed in 1997. Creely estimates the total per-lead-plaintiff award is close to $250,000 by now.

The case is far from over. Meanwhile, the state workers formerly stationed in the Plaza Tower moved to the 1010 Common Building under a state emergency order in 2002 — five years after they brought lawsuits against Plaza Tower and the state.

Gina Racasner, also one of the five lead plaintiffs, says the most frustrating part for her was the fact that everyone up the chain of command blamed someone else. "The Department of Health and Hospitals justified [workers staying for so long], and here they are public health administrators," she says. "They needed to get us out of [this] building, and here they were part of the state's public health services. It never made sense."

The class-action suit has dragged on for years in part because many pre-trial decisions were appealed to the state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Even after Ramsey's latest rulings are appealed, what remains to be resolved is how much — if anything — the remaining 695 "absent" members of the class will be awarded.

Creely says pre-trial motions have begun in the process that will determine how much the remaining plaintiffs will receive.

Those trials will be held, perhaps in clusters or "flights" of plaintiffs, to determine their individual health-related damages. Creely notes that each worker could be eligible for a different amount of damages. Not all should receive $35,000 for constant sniffles compared to those who found the working conditions debilitating. Moreover, each plaintiff's individual medical records must be examined to help determine the exact amount of damages for each plaintiff.

Including interest, if each of the 700 plaintiffs receives the same amount as the lead plaintiffs, the state's tab could reach or exceed $35 million.

Watters expects the state to appeal all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, but she is willing to wait. "I think we've proven we are patient," she says. Corrections In "The Craft" (Cover story, May 6), we incorrectly identified three bug sculptures as the work of artist Pandra Williams. The sculptures were the work of New Orleans artist Maria LoVullo. Williams, an environmental artist who lives in Atlanta, also is a sculputor who displays work with the Craft Mafia.

In his review of Jazz Fest 2008 ("Rain and Shine," May 13), Count Basin™ incorrectly credited Bob French for his brother George French's performance and beautiful voice in the tribute to the Turbinton brothers. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.

Sherry Watters, a supervising attorney in the state Department of Social Services, is a lead plaintiff in the suit and the most publicly outspoken of the workers who are suing DSS and the Department of Health and Hospitals over working conditions in Plaza Tower. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Sherry Watters, a supervising attorney in the state Department of Social Services, is a lead plaintiff in the suit and the most publicly outspoken of the workers who are suing DSS and the Department of Health and Hospitals over working conditions in Plaza Tower.
Wendy Lemieux (left), Gina Recasner, Sherry Watters and Gretchen Wiltz are among the five plaintiffs awarded $35,000 each in a lawsuit involving working conditions at Plaza Tower (shown in the background). With interest, their awards could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars each if upheld. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Wendy Lemieux (left), Gina Recasner, Sherry Watters and Gretchen Wiltz are among the five plaintiffs awarded $35,000 each in a lawsuit involving working conditions at Plaza Tower (shown in the background). With interest, their awards could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars each if upheld.

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