Ex-lottery official’s lawsuit curtailed by judge

A lawsuit filed against the state by the Minnesota Lottery’s former second-in-command after her firing has been significantly narrowed by a judge.

In an order earlier this month, Ramsey County District Court Judge Shawn Bartsh dismissed three of four claims brought by Johnene Canfield. She was fired as the lottery’s director of operations in 2015 after a series of incidents of public intoxication, including one where she got in a serious car crash a half hour after a work conference call.

State lawyers asked the judge in a filing Monday to reconsider the decision to let one claim move ahead to a scheduled April trial.

“This is not an easy case for either side,” Bartsh wrote in her Feb. 3 order.

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Canfield sued after being fired from her $116,000 per year executive role and also being terminated from a unionized position that she held prior to moving up the ranks. After being forced from the high-level position, Canfield attempted to return to the classified job.

In her lawsuit, Canfield argued she had been discriminated against based on her gender and her alcoholism, which she contends is a protected disability.

The Minnesota Lottery had a policy that prohibited alcohol use on state time or premises. But it had a unique exception that allowed drinking during conferences as long as it was in moderation. Canfield traveled to many conferences for her job and often drank alongside then-lottery chief, Ed Van Petten.

But in the order, Bartsh said the state had provided ample justification for firing Canfield from the management job, noting that she had been on notice for alcohol abuse and had several run-ins.

The fact that she drank with Van Petten, who subsequently resigned over questionable expense reports, didn’t mean her behavior was condoned or her punishment unwarranted, Bartsh concluded.

“There is nothing in the evidence submitted that suggests defendant’s motives for termination from the director of operations position were other than plaintiff’s misconduct in consuming alcohol either while at work or to a point where her intoxication interfered with her job duties and performance,” the judge wrote.

However, the judge said, Canfield may have had the right to return to her lower-level job and shouldn’t have had her misconduct in the management role used against her.

“The court finds it unfair to use those same violations to terminate her from a job the lottery was contractually required to allow her to return to, especially in light of the changes Ms. Canfield made in her life,” Bartsh said.

Court records say Canfield sought treatment, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and maintained her sobriety while suspended during a state investigation.

In a court filing Monday, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Fodness said the judge relied on "erroneous factual and legal conclusions." Fodness said it’s not uncommon in the public sector to discharge an employee from a management and any fallback positions for misconduct.

“It is well-established that the courts do not serve a ‘super-personnel department that re-examines an entity’s business decisions,’” Fodness wrote, quoting other court rulings.

Canfield’s attorney Kevin Beck said the judge made the right call preserving one avenue of the case.

“In the labor world there is a concept called double jeopardy – that you can’t be disciplined twice for the same conduct,” Beck said. “And that’s effectively what the lottery did in this case.”

Settlement talks, which so far haven’t proven fruitful, are likely to resume prior to trial.