ST. PAUL, Minn. — A former senior executive at the Minnesota State Lottery who was fired amid a bout with alcohol abuse is suing her ex-boss and the state on claims she was discriminated against because of her gender and her chemical dependency.
Johnene Canfield filed a lawsuit Friday in Ramsey County District Court that seeks reinstatement to the $100,000-a-year assistant lottery director post. She is also seeking damages for lost wages and emotional distress since being put on leave in December following her arrest in a suspected drunken driving crash. Canfield ultimately was terminated as a state employee in July but had been formally removed from her executive post two months earlier.
Her lawsuit candidly recounts struggles with alcohol abuse, which previously led to a 10-day suspension in 2012 after she became intoxicated at an out-of-state conference. But Canfield contends she received mixed messages from her superiors about alcohol use and had been "condoned and encouraged" by Lottery Director Ed Van Petten to drink with him when they traveled together to conferences in recent years.
Van Petten, who is named as a defendant, said Tuesday he couldn't comment on the pending litigation. The Department of Minnesota Management and Budget, which is also being sued, also declined to comment.
Through an attorney, Canfield declined an interview request. The attorney, Kevin Beck, would only say, "We ask that Ms. Canfield's privacy be respected and we let the courts process work itself out."
Her firing ended a 25-year career with the lottery dating to the agency's creation in 1989. Canfield, 47, began as a secretary and rose to the entity's upper ranks, including a seven-month stint as interim director between the departure of the former chief and hiring of Van Petten in March 2012.
According to the lawsuit, she was fired for actions that "have caused a loss of trust and confidence that are critical to the high level managerial position" she held and for exhibiting poor judgment that has "negatively impacted the reputation of the Lottery." State officials have yet to release her personnel file or confirm the reasons for her dismissal.
The lawsuit hinges on two main arguments. Canfield argues her alcoholism didn't materially affect her performance but she was punished more severely than two male managers who received short suspensions for serious rule violations directly relating to their official duties.
She also maintains that her alcoholism is a protected disability under the state Human Rights Act. Her lawsuit says the state had a duty to do more to help her cope with the abuse.
Instances where alcoholism has been invoked in a wrongful termination case are rare, but not novel. Minneapolis attorney George Antrim III, who successfully represented a client in such a case in federal court in the 1990s, said they are difficult to prove. He has been approached regularly since then about helping in similar cases.
"The problem is almost always that the employee has engaged in some conduct," said Antrim, who is not involved in Canfield's case. "Just because you are drunk does not excuse the conduct. Just because you have a disability does not excuse the behavior."
He added that judges "just don't cut you much slack."
"There's still a great reluctance to accept alcoholism and chemical dependency as disabilities," he said. "It's a hard fight."
Canfield's criminal trial in the drunken driving case is set for later this month. She faces gross misdemeanor charges on allegations she was intoxicated and caused an accident on a weekday afternoon that injured an elderly man. She was previously convicted on a drunken driving charge in 2001.