An increasing number of workers in the health-care industry are bringing whistleblower actions against their employers, claiming they were retaliated against for complaining about or reporting suspected violations of law, substandard patient care, or other types of misconduct.
The rise in health-care whistleblower claims has been attributed to new laws and regulations, as well as recent court rulings, that have expanded protections to employees who report inappropriate conduct in the workplace.
In Michigan, the Public Health Code provides a cause of action for a health-care employee’s wrongful termination. Section 333.20176a of the Public Health Code prohibits the discharge of a worker — including an at-will employee — who reports malpractice or a violation of the Code. This public policy prohibition applies to all types of health-care employers, including hospitals, nursing homes, hospice providers, clinical labs, and outpatient facilities.
The Michigan Supreme Court recently upheld a wrongful discharge argument based on the Public Health Code. In Landin v. HealthSource Saginaw, Inc., the Supreme Court let stand a $1.2 million verdict for a nurse who claimed he was fired by defendant hospital in retaliation for complaining that a co-worker’s negligence had led to a patient’s death. The Landin decision demonstrates that health-care workers can successfully pursue whistleblower claims against their employers when subjected to illegal retaliatory discipline.
One caveat, however, is that the Public Health Code does not indicate to whom a report must be made. In the Landin case, the nurse reported the misconduct to his supervisor, which was sufficient. In addition to a supervisor, reporting to a state or federal agency would be appropriate. However, it is unclear whether reporting directly to a patient or a patient’s family member, or even an attorney, would be protected.
It is also important to note that a whistleblower claim is actionable even if the health-care worker did not actually report the misconduct. Instead, there only needs to be a good-faith intent to report. Likewise, an employer does not have to impose any discipline to be held liable. Rather, threatening to take adverse action against the employee is sufficient.
The attorneys in Sommers Schwartz’s Employment Litigation Group are knowledgeable in all aspects of whistleblower law. If you’re a health-care worker and suspect that you have been retaliated against, please contact us to find out how we can help.