Detroit nurses sue Tenet for alleged retaliatory firings over COVID-19 safety concerns

By | June 13, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • Former nurses and employees at Tenet-owned Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace hospital filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Wayne County Circuit Court alleging they were fired for bringing attention to staffing and patient safety concerns at the facility during the pandemic.
  • A DMC spokesperson told Healthcare Dive it doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but defended the employees’ termination, saying after receiving complaints that employees took inappropriate photos of deceased patients at Sinai-Grace, an investigation was conducted and “appropriate action” was taken.
  • The lawsuit alleges Detroit Medical Center and Tenet violated Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act. The plaintiffs are also suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking $ 25 million each in damages.

Dive Insight:

As the Detroit area suffered surging COVID-19 cases in late March and early April, nurses at Sinai-Grace hospital raised concerns to hospital management over patient safety, sufficient staffing and PPE access, according to the lawsuit.

Two of the fired nurses said they ended up working 25-hour shifts, and all of the plaintiffs said they repeatedly shared concerns with hospital management before they went to local media outlets and government officials.

Then in mid-April, a viral photo leaked from the hospital depicting bodies of COVID-19 patients piled up in unrefrigerated rooms. All four plaintiffs denied taking or sending the photos yet were terminated for violating social media and various other policies, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges another employee later took credit for the photos. 

Tenet did not respond to requests for comment. A DMC spokesperson told Healthcare Dive the terminations were based on “employee admissions of violations of the hospitals patients’ right to privacy.”

In a statement provided at the time of the firings, DMC said it has an “unwavering commitment and obligation to respect the privacy of our patients and to treat them with dignity and respect. We will not tolerate actions to the contrary.”

But the nurses say they’re protected under Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act, which states employers can’t retaliate against employees for reporting suspected or proven violations of laws or regulations in the workplace.

The Joint Commission also maintains non-retaliatory provisions, prohibiting adverse employment decisions based on an employee’s good faith reporting of a concern about compliance with policy or legal requirements.

In a separate lawsuit filed in late April, another former nurse also alleged retaliatory termination from DMC. She too was fired for violating social media policies after posting a 7-second video showing off her PPE. 

According to that suit, “the post did not violate DMC’s social media policy and her termination occurred at a time where Sinai-Grace Hospital was in dire need of experienced or additional nurses because of the influx of COVID-19 patients.”

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