Legal Eagle Eye Newsletter for the Nursing Profession (6)1 Jan 98


   Quick Summary: A nurse can sue her former employer, a skilled nursing facility that fired her for complaining that rubber gloves were not being provided, in violation of OSHA regulations.

   The law protects employees from employer retaliation for complaints to state or Federal authorities over occupational safety and health issues.

   This nurse had a valid lawsuit for lost income and punitive damages. UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT, OKLAHOMA, 1997.

   The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma ruled there was retaliation in violation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act.

   The charge nurse in a skilled nursing facility filed formal complaints with the state department of health and with the local office of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This was after her written report to the facility’s administrator had been ignored that protective rubber gloves were not being made available by the employer as required by law. The charge nurse had had to dispense expensive sterile gloves to nurses’ aides so they could do their jobs.

   There was a flurry of activity by the facility’s administration, writing up the nurse for alleged deficiencies in patient care and supervision of the aides under her direction, right after the nurse filed her complaints with state and Federal authorities, right before her termination.

   The court discounted this as a transparent attempt to create some justification for firing the nurse. In general, if an employee files a complaint over an occupational safety and health issue, then is treated adversely by the employer and it appears there is some cause-and-effect connection, and then sues, the employer has to come to court with evidence it was not trying to retaliate. The court ruled this employer did not have believable proof of a non-retaliatory motive.

   The court can double the employee’s actual damages, award punitive damages, and make the employer pay attorney’s fees. Reich vs. Skyline Terrace, Inc., 977 F. Supp. 1141 (N.D. Okla., 1997).