OCTOBER 18, 1999 VOLUME 7, NUMBER 16
In the absence of a detailed employment agreement spelling out the grounds for discharge, most employees can be fired for any reason at all. Sometimes, however, notions of public policy override the ability of an employer to discharge an employee.
Jane Hausman worked for the St. Croix Care Center, a nursing home in Prescott, Wisconsin. She was the director of social services and one member of a five-person team charged with seeing to it that St. Croix’ patients received proper care. Beginning in 1992, she and some of the other members of her team became concerned about that quality of care.
In internal memos, Ms. Hausman detailed what she thought were shortcomings in patient care at St. Croix: patients falling from bed, staff members failing to respond to cries for help, disrespectful treatment of patients, improper diets and a general failure to investigate injuries and possible mistreatment. Over the course of nearly a year, Ms. Hausman saw little change in the treatment of her patients.
In March of 1993, Ms. Hausman contacted the regional Ombudsman for nursing home care, and ultimately requested an external investigation. Three months later, St. Croix fired Ms. Hausman and one other staff member. Both brought suit to recover their jobs and to secure damages for what they contended was a wrongful discharge.
St. Croix turned the claim over to its insurance company, St. Paul Insurance. The insurer argued that the policy was intended to protect patients, and that even if an employee was wrongfully discharged it should not have to pay any of the damages.
Meanwhile, the nursing home itself argued that Ms. Hausman was an “at will” employee—that she could be discharged for any reason or for no reason at all. The Wisconsin Supreme Court disagreed, citing the public policy interest in protecting nursing home residents from neglect or abuse. Furthermore, ruled the court, Ms. Hausman had a duty imposed by her state social work license, and she could not be fired for discharging that duty.
Now the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has decided that Ms. Hausman can recover her damages from St. Croix’ insurance company. The policy covered anyone injured by St. Croix “interfering with the rights provided to a person by a patient’s bill of rights or any similar law,” and the court reasoned that a Wisconsin law prohibiting retaliation against employees for reporting neglect was a part of the patient’s bill of rights, even though it protected employees rather than patients. Not only did Ms. Hausman prevail against St. Croix, but her claim was also covered by the facility’s insurance. St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. v. Hausman, October 5, 1999.