Nurses' Registry president sued by former employee

His lawyer calls it a retaliatory move

jkegley@herald-leader.comFebruary 1, 2011 

Lennie House, who owns Nurses Registry. Photo Provided

The president of Nurses Registry and Home Health Corp. is being sued by a former employee who alleges that she and other female employees suffered years of violence, threats and sexism at their employer's hands.

Joetta Hutson is seeking an undetermined amount of compensatory and punitive damages from Nurses Registry and its president, Lennie G. House, a businessman who owns and operates several ventures in and around Lexington.

House was the owner of the now-defunct Kentucky Horsemen indoor football team, which folded in 2009 after failing to break even in ticket and concession sales for several years.

Nurses Registry is a business that sends nurses to short-staffed physicians and provides in-home care to patients. Nurses Registry is well-known for its frequent television commercials featuring House and University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari.

Hutson's lawsuit, filed Jan. 21, says House is responsible for a hostile work environment at Nurses Registry.

An attorney for House said Hutson filed the lawsuit as retaliation for a lawsuit in which Nurses Registry is suing her.

The 2009 lawsuit against Hutson accuses her of violating a signed non-compete/non-disclosure agreement by taking a job with a competing health-care company after her resignation from Nurses Registry.

Tom Bullock, House's attorney, called Hutson a disgruntled employee who is seeking to "publicly smear both Nurses Registry and Mr. House to get an advantage" in the earlier lawsuit.

"We're going to defend this lawsuit vigorously," Bullock said.

Attorneys for Hutson did not immediately return calls for comment.

Hutson began working for Nurses Registry in 2001 as a registered nurse and resigned in 2002. She returned in 2003 as a field nurse, and she was promoted or transferred several times.

In 2006, she became director of marketing. In that capacity she interacted daily with House. During the last two to three years of her employment, Hutson alleges, she and other female employees were subjected to "a severe and pervasive gender-based hostile work environment in which he repeatedly demeaned and degraded female employees and women generally."

The lawsuit contends House referred to female nurses as "whores" and made frequent remarks about women's "breasts, buttocks, legs and vaginal areas."

The lawsuit says House showed sex toys to Hutson; instructed her to hire only young, attractive nurses; and kept a pair of panties in his desk drawer, bragging frequently about "his sexual activities with the owner of the panties."

Hutson's lawsuit also alleges several violent threats by House. It says that he threatened to torture "certain individuals" at a remote cabin in Owen County and that he fired a gun during working hours, according to the lawsuit.

All of this forced Hutson to "prematurely and involuntarily tender her letter of resignation" in May 2008, the lawsuit says, amounting to wrongful discharge of Hutson by Nurses Registry.

Allegations of gender discrimination originally were made in a motion to amend Hutson's counter-claim to the 2009 lawsuit nearly two years after her original response to that lawsuit was filed. In her original response, Hutson did not mention discrimination or threats; she simply denied allegations that she violated the non-compete/non-disclosure agreement.

Judge Kimberly Bunnell overruled Hutson's motion on Dec. 1, refusing to allow her to amend her counterclaim. Less than eight weeks later, Hutson filed her lawsuit.

Bullock questioned why Hutson would wait two years before filing the counterclaim and then the lawsuit once the counterclaim was rejected. She had never mentioned sexual harassment before, either to the company or to the courts, he said.

"If somebody were actually subjected to the things that she's claiming she was subjected to, then it seems they would have come forward with it prior to being sued ... or would have brought it up within the first year or so," Bullock said.

"It makes no sense that she waits two years in litigation before she would ever publicly start making these claims."

Hutson allegedly violated her non-compete/non-disclosure agreement by taking a job with home health care business Gentiva.

According to Nurses Registry's lawsuit, Hutson, who had spent time as director of nursing and director of marketing, had access to confidential files, including trade secrets and customer lists. After she resigned, Nurses Registry saw a 35 percent decline in business, according to court documents.

Hutson said in her lawsuit that she took the job with Gentiva "with the full knowledge, consent and approval of Lennie G. House." She worked only in areas of Kentucky and Ohio that were not served by Nurses Registry and "did not, at any time, solicit business for Gentiva, compete with or otherwise interfere with Nurses Registry business in any respect."

Hutson alleges that House knew she was not a threat to his business and that he was trying to "drag her into court until he 'took every last dime out of her pocket.'"

Bullock called Hutson's claims of threats and sex discrimination "unfounded and salacious."

House has not been charged in any violent or sexual crimes in Fayette County. He has had three traffic infractions, including two charges of driving under the influence, one in 2006 and one in 2010, according to court records.

He was sentenced to four days in jail and about $450 in fines and court fees for the 2006 DUI. That case is under appeal.

House's name appears on nearly 100 lawsuits filed in Fayette Circuit Court. He is listed as the plaintiff in more than 80 of those cases, and many are against former Nurses Registry employees.

"Nurses Registry strongly enforces its non-compete/non-disclosure agreements," Bullock said.

Bullock, who received a copy of the new lawsuit Friday, said the next step will be to file a motion to dismiss Hutson's lawsuit.