Health Exec Says She Was Fired For Raising Virus Concerns

By Lauraann Wood
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Law360 (May 26, 2020, 6:17 PM EDT) -- A former executive for an Illinois nursing home has claimed in state court that she was abruptly fired from her job because she challenged the facility's COVID-19 response whenever it was inaccurate or disregarded regulatory guidance for safely navigating the pandemic.

Andrea Hinich said in a May 20 lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court that long-term care company Norwood Life Society Inc. fired her in retaliation for opposing, reporting and refusing to follow company directives on personal protective equipment, staffing and other issues that were allegedly insufficient and violated her personal nursing obligations as well as both federal and statewide regulations guiding health care professionals' response to the coronavirus.

Hinich claims that although "insubordination" was listed on a backdated report that served as her termination notice, she was really the "scapegoat for the same safety concerns" that had either been dismissed or outright ignored when she raised them to her superiors. She's asking a judge to award her damages exceeding $100,000 including actual and punitive damages, as well as costs and fees.

"Healthcare workers must be free to raise safety issues without fear of retaliation," her attorney, Jeffrey Kulwin of Kulwin Masciopinto & Kulwin LLP, said in a statement announcing the suit. "In our community, it is essential to protect people who are responsible for the safety of frontline healthcare workers, and especially the people responsible for protecting healthcare workers who care for the people who live at long-term care facilities."

Hinich was hired as the assistant director of nursing at Norwood Crossing in Chicago in June 2019 but was promoted to be the facility's nursing director in January, according to her lawsuit.

Hinich claimed that as the coronavirus started spreading in Chicago, she consistently tried to implement policies and procedures that complied with guidance that authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health had begun issuing in response to the virus.

However, the facility's senior management "repeatedly reacted in hostile and negative ways to Hinich's efforts to fulfill her professional nursing obligations and, in particular, they repeatedly resisted her warnings about unsafe and unlawful conduct," the suit said.

For example, on March 19, facility administrator Jon Ragsdale emailed the Norwood community stating that the facility's care team "are experienced in infection control and proper treatment," Hinich claimed. He "knew his statements were important, but not accurate," as there was no specific treatment for COVID-19 and only care for its symptoms at the time he made the statement, her suit said.

Most of the Norwood Crossing staff also had experience with long-term health care and weren't as experienced in infection control as Ragsdale had made it seem in his email, the suit said. Hinich said she alerted superiors including Ragsdale to the staff's need for proper COVID-19 response training, but Ragsdale simply told her it "was no time to be 'punitive' towards the staff."

Hinich claimed she also pushed back against inaccurate statements from Ragsdale regarding available personal protective equipment including N95 respirator masks, as well as his decision to distribute the masks to staff without offering the mandatory training to use them effectively. Ragsdale's "ill-conceived plan" to provide the masks posed serious health safety risks because "respirators cannot protect healthcare workers if they do not know how to use them correctly or if they do not fit properly," she claimed.

Hinich caught the mask announcement during part of a senior management safety meeting that she wasn't informed about and was initially excluded from, according to her suit. She learned about the meeting through a staff member after arriving to work that day, ultimately attended some of it and aired her ongoing coronavirus response concerns.

But Hinich was fired a day after the meeting, without warning, for purported insubordination, according to her suit. She received a corrective action report that was dated a day before the meeting and outlined several offenses, including a failure to maintain sufficient emergency supplies, which purportedly warranted immediate termination, the suit said.

But facility management "did not explain the reasons why Hinich was permitted to continue working, and not terminated immediately, after she committed the alleged offenses referenced in the corrective action report," Hinich claimed.

"The reasons given for terminating Hinich stated in the corrective action report were false and pretextual," she claimed.

Representatives for the facility did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Hinich is represented by Jeffrey Kulwin of Kulwin Masciopinto & Kulwin LLP.

Counsel information for Norwood Crossing was not immediately available Tuesday.

The case is Andrea Hinich v. Norwood Life Society Inc. et al., case number 2020-L-005539, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.

--Editing by Jack Karp.

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