Connecticut's Department of Public Health has reached a settlement agreement with the agency's former commissioner, who was fired in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. She had accused Gov. Ned Lamon of discriminating against her, a Black woman, by elevating several white people to lead the crisis response.
The agreement, signed on Monday, settles a federal lawsuit filed last year by Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who was ousted on May 12, 2020. While admitting no wrongdoing or violating state or federal law, the state agreed to pay the former commissioner $200,000. The bulk of the money, $160,000, covers “compensatory damages for emotional distress, personal physical injuries, and physical sickness” in connection with her dismissal.
The remaining $40,000 will cover her legal fees and costs.
The agreement also stipulates the state will pay $1,249 to the Connecticut Department of Labor to resolve an unemployment compensation benefits overpayment Coleman-Mitchell had received in May 2020 that she was not eligible for under state law. Additionally, Coleman-Mitchell agreed not to pursue further litigation in the matter or apply for employment in the future with the Connecticut Department of Public Health.
Coleman-Mitchell's attorney, Cynthia Jennings, declined to comment on the settlement when reached by phone. Adam Joseph, a spokesperson for Lamont, said in a statement: “We are pleased to have reached this settlement. We believe the settlement speaks for itself and wish Ms. Coleman-Mitchell the best.”
In her original lawsuit, Coleman-Mitchell said she was never provided severance pay or consideration for another position as promised by Lamont, a Democrat, when she was removed as commissioner. She said last year she was unable to find another job because of the damage done to her reputation. Under the agreement finalized Monday, the reason for Coleman-Mitchell's departure from state government will now be listed as “resigned in good standing,” rather than “unclassified appointment discontinued.”
Coleman-Mitchell was among dozens of state and local public health leaders around the U.S. who resigned or were fired in the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak as local governments navigated politics surrounding mask-wearing, lockdowns and infection data.
In 2020, Lamont did not say publicly why he was replacing Coleman-Mitchell with Deidre Gifford, then-commissioner of the state Department of Social Services. At the time, a state official said Lamont removed her for several reasons, including being slow to act on a plan to protect nursing homes from the virus and refusing the previous year to publicly release school-by-school vaccination rates. The official was not authorized to disclose the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Coleman-Mitchell said the governor told her that her removal had nothing to do with her job performance and that he had decided to move in a different direction.
“Governor Lamont’s ‘different direction’ was biased and discriminatory and simply on the basis that he did not prefer to have an older African-American female in the public eye as the individual leading the state in the fight against COVID-19,” the lawsuit read.
In the lawsuit, Coleman-Mitchell said she had raised concerns about infections in nursing homes during the first week of March 2020 but her warnings were met with opposition by Lamont and his administration. By firing her, she said, Lamont insinuated she failed in the response to the pandemic, and the lawsuit cited what it called “the thousands of elderly nursing home illnesses and deaths that needlessly occurred as a result of Governor Lamont’s failure to act in a timely manner.”