APRIL 26, 2004 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 43
When LPNs Diane Owens and Alisa Main were fired from their jobs with Fayetteville Health and Rehabilitation Center in April, 2000, they were sure their dismissals were retribution. Ms. Owens and Ms. Main had each complained to Kristy Unkel, the Director of Nursing, about the care provided by several certified nurse assistants (CNAs) at the facility. Ms. Owens had even lodged a complaint with the Office of Long-Term Care about what she saw as abuse and neglect of Fayetteville patients.
At least six CNAs had signed a letter to the nursing home administrator, in which they insisted that Ms. Owens created a difficult work environment for them. The CNAs also claimed that Ms. Owens and Ms. Main had themselves abused and neglected patients. According to the CNAs’ complaints, Ms. Owens had failed to document one patient’s fall and fractured hip, and Ms. Main missed a patient’s scheduled medication and spoke harshly to another resident.
One problem with the CNAs’ allegations was that work schedules made their version of the facts difficult to believe, since Ms. Owens had not even signed to work on the day of the patient’s fall. The CNA accusing Ms. Main of missing a patient’s medication was not signed in to work on the date of that alleged incident.
Ms. Owens and Ms. Mains sued Fayetteville and Ms. Unkel, the Director of Nursing. They alleged that they were discharged in retaliation for their complaints, and that their reputations were injured by the false allegations on which the firings were based.
After four days of testimony an Arkansas jury found in favor of Ms. Main and Ms. Owens. The jury awarded damages totaling $332,740 to the two LPNs. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the award.
Fayetteville had argued that it had a duty to report allegations of elder abuse, and that it could not be sued for incidents related to its reports against Ms. Owens and Ms. Main. The problem with that theory, ruled the state’s high court, was that the jury had found that Fayetteville did not act in good faith when it filed reports.
The facility also argued that Ms. Owens and Ms. Main were “at-will” employees, and could be fired for any reason or no reason at all. The high court pointed out that public policy considerations require protection for individuals who report abuse or neglect of vulnerable seniors, and employers may not retaliate against employees for such reports. The jury found that the firings were retaliatory and the high court agreed. Northport Health Services v. Owens, April 8, 2004.
As it turns out, Fayetteville’s problems with claims of inadequate care have continued since the firing of Ms. Owens and Ms. Main. In November of 2000–less than a year after Ms. Owens and Ms. Main were discharged–Fayetteville fell so far below the level of care required by the Medicare program that civil penalties were imposed and the facility was denied payment for new Medicare admissions for a two-month period.
Fayetteville’s problems included failing to notify two residents’ physicians about emergency medical conditions, and failure to protect one resident from the possibility of inappropriate administration of medication by a visiting family member. The ruling of the Administrative Law Judge in Medicare’s action against Fayetteville is available online at http://www.hhs.gov/dab/decisions/CR1050.htm. More recent information (still not encouraging as of the most recent survey date) is synopsized on the MemberOfTheFamily.Net website, which includes state-by-state and facility-by-facility information on nursing home survey results.