Whistleblowing by an employee has been the subject of many court cases over the years. Whistleblowing is defined as a “disclosure by a person, usually an employee in a governmental agency or private enterprise, to the public or to those in authority, of mismanagement corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing.”
In the following case (Guminski v. Massac County Hospital District), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois evaluated whether an RN employee’s reporting of a nurse supervisor’s conduct constituted whistleblowing.
The RN worked at the hospital from August 2009 until January 2014. One day, according to the RN’s testimony, she observed her supervisor mistreat a new employee and falsify patient charts by “intentionally documenting ‘made up’ vital signs after the patients had been discharged.”
The RN asked her supervisor if she needed help on several occasions. The supervisor refused any help and added that “she knew what she was doing.”
The RN reported both of her observations to the Director of Nursing in early 2013.
After her oral and written report to the Director of Nursing, the RN was, “harassed and retaliated against” at work. In January of 2014, she was terminated.
RN Files Lawsuit
The nurse’s lawsuit alleged two causes of action. The first was that her termination was in retaliation for reporting the conduct of the supervisor to the Director of Nursing.
Her second allegation was that she was terminated in violation of the state whistleblower act.
The hospital filed a Motion to Dismiss the RN’s complaint.
The court discussed the applicable law for each cause of the RN’s complaint.
When alleging a retaliatory discharge claim, three elements of such a claim are:
- A plaintiff must establish a termination.
- The termination was in retaliation of the plaintiff’s activities.
- The plaintiff must establish that the termination violates a clear mandate of public policy.
The Court’s Decision
The court cited several state cases supporting a retaliatory discharge claim when an employee notifies a supervisor within his or her own company of misconduct and is then terminated.
The court also reviewed other state case law that held that “public policy, as well as state law, favors an approach that would allow dutiful employees who report wrongdoing to their employers to bring retaliatory discharge claims.”
The hospital argued the RN failed to make a causal connection between her termination and the alleged wrongful conduct.
The court opined the RN is only required to describe a claim in enough detail to provide the hospital with “fair notice” of what the claim is, the grounds on which it rests, and reasonably suggests she has a right to relief “above the speculative level.”
The court held the RN had done so and was not ruling on the merits of her claim, but only that she had plead enough in her complaint to withstand the hospital’s Motion to Dismiss.
As to the RN’s alleged violation of her rights under the state whistleblower act, the court emphasized that under the act, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for refusing to participate in any activity that would violate a state or federal law, rule, or regulation.
In this case, there was no request or refusal to participate in any activity that violated a state or federal law, rule, or regulation. In fact, the RN’s request to help her supervisor was refused.
In addition, the Whistleblower Act protects an employee from a retaliatory termination of a job if the employee reports applicable conduct to an outside entity such as a government or law enforcement agency, an administrative proceeding, or in court.
Here, the reporting was done within the hospital only.
As a result, the allegation by the RN that her discharge was a violation of the state whistleblower act fails.
The Motion to Dismiss the allegations of retaliatory discharge was denied by the court but was granted as to her allegations of a violation of the state Whistleblower Act.
Notable Concepts in This Case
Being terminated from your job is a terrible experience. It is especially so when done in retaliation for exercising a just, honorable, or ethical right. Legal protections exist that are meant to allow you to raise your voice when you observe wrongs in the workplace.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that legal mandates must be followed when attempting to prove that you were indeed fired because of your legally protected conduct.
Keep these case lessons in mind:
If you’re distressed about conduct at work, document in detail what that conduct was, when it occurred, staff involved, patients affected, and any other specific details surrounding the event or events.
Obtain a consultation with an attorney before reporting the conduct — either internally or externally — and follow the attorney’s advice on reporting.
Document your reporting of the conduct, with the date, to whom or to what agency it was reported, details reported, how it was reported (oral or written), and the response to the reporting.
Document any harassment or other work-related conduct toward you that was unusual.
If you are fired, retain the attorney you consulted to represent you.
Remember that to obtain protection under a whistleblowing statute, you must first report your concerns to your superiors and then to an outside entity.
A retaliatory discharge claim can be brought when you report your concerns to your employer and are subsequently fired.
And don’t forget, always remain truthful in your reporting.
Take these courses to keep yourself and patients safe:
Ethics for Nurses
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Healthcare professionals are held to high standards of moral character and an expectation to be patient advocates. This innate drive to do “what is right,” arguably a prerequisite for pursuing a career in patient care, is rooted in history, law, clinical education, and current daily practice. What do we do when this line is blurred, and no clear answer appears to all involved parties? This course seeks to give the nurse understanding of past, present, and future practices of ethical decision-making in the acute care setting as well as how to manage instances when our own values and judgement do not align with that of the patient, family, or care team.
Social Media for the Professional Nurse
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For many of us, social media is a fun way to stay in touch with friends and family. We share photos and stories with people across town and around the world. However, nurses need to be cautious as they engage in social media as it can affect their careers in ways never imagined. Content taken in the wrong context can damage a nurse’s professional reputation.
Protect Yourself: Know Your Nurse Practice Act
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Nurses have an obligation to keep abreast of current issues related to the regulation of the practice of nursing not only in their respective states but also across the nation, especially when their nursing practice crosses state borders. Because the practice of nursing is a right granted by a state to protect those who need nursing care, nurses have a duty to patients to practice in a safe, competent, and responsible manner. This course outlines information about nurse practice acts and how they affect nursing practice.