Northwestern To Face Nurse's COVID-19 Mask Retaliation Suit

By Kevin Stawicki
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Law360 (September 16, 2020, 6:37 PM EDT) -- Northwestern Memorial Hospital can't shake a lawsuit by a nurse who claims she was fired for warning colleagues that masks provided by the Northwestern University-affiliated hospital were inadequate to protect against COVID-19, an Illinois state court judge has ruled.

Circuit Court Judge Patricia O'Brien Sheahan on Tuesday denied Northwestern's bid to toss Lauri Mazurkiewicz's claims that she was terminated in retaliation for informing colleagues that N95 face masks, which filter out 95% of airborne particles, are safer and more effective than the masks that were being distributed by the hospital.

Northwestern had argued in its motion to dismiss that Mazurkiewicz's concerns were "little more than a personal gripe" and that she failed to present any policy the hospital allegedly violated. To proceed with a retaliatory claim, the employee must show that the employer fired them in retaliation because of the individual's activities and that the termination violated a public policy mandate. But Judge Sheahan disagreed.

"Illinois has a clearly mandated public policy of stopping the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the health and safety of its citizens," the judge wrote. "Plaintiff's email was not sheerly a 'private' concern, but rather one that relates to the spread of COVID-19 within her hospital work environment and therefore one that has an 'impact on the general welfare of Illinois citizens as a whole.'"

Mazurkiewicz's suit is among the first retaliation cases in the country related to the coronavirus pandemic. According to her complaint filed in March, Mazurkiewicz said that after being exposed to patients with the novel coronavirus, she opted to use her personal N95 mask instead of the less-effective face masks that the hospital required its employees to wear. But Northwestern did not allow its staff to wear N95 masks, she said.

In response to the N95 mask ban, Mazurkiewicz said she sent the email warning her co-workers about the ineffectiveness of the provided masks "for the purpose of promoting public health" and also stated that she would only wear an N95 mask.

"Plaintiff's email exposed defendant hospital's malfeasance," Mazurkiewicz said in the suit.

The following day, Mazurkiewicz showed up to work wearing an N95 mask and was promptly fired, according to the suit.

Mazurkiewicz alleges that Northwestern terminated her employment to prevent her from speaking out about its malfeasance and in order to prevent her from informing co-workers that the provided face masks were unsafe.

"As Northwestern Medicine continues to respond to this unprecedented health care pandemic, the health and well-being of our patients, our staff and our employees is our highest priority," a spokesman for the hospital said in a statement in March. "We take these matters seriously, and we are currently reviewing the complaint."

Counsel and representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mazurkiewicz is represented by Blake W. Horwitz and Jeffrey C. Grossich of The Blake Horwitz Law Firm.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is Lauri Mazurkiewicz v. Northwestern Memorial Hospital et al., case number 2020-L-003511, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois.

--Additional reporting by Y. Peter Kang. Editing by Jack Karp.

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