Spokane Journal of Business

Providence Health Care worker's firing was improper, state Supreme Court finds

Sacred Heart violated family medical leave act, justices say in split ruling

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The Washington state Supreme Court has found in a 5-4 ruling that Providence Health Care improperly terminated an employee here under provisions of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Dissenting Supreme Court justices contended that the dismissal of the employee, Robert Chaney, had more to do with his inability to perform work because of prescription medicine he was taking.

The Feb. 21 ruling remanded the case back to Spokane County Superior Court for further proceedings.

The lawsuit stemmed from the August 2007 firing of Chaney, who worked as a radiologic technician at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children's Hospital, one of the member facilities in the Providence Health Care network. The Supreme Court ruling says Chaney "relied heavily on the FMLA" over two years between 2005 and 2007 when his wife fell ill after giving birth and he suffered a back injury.

By June 2007, Chaney had used up most of his FMLA leave as well as leave time donated by other employees, according to background information in the high court's ruling. On June 25 of that year, another employee reported that Chaney had appeared fatigued and incoherent while on the job. Chaney was ordered to report for drug testing, court documents say, and he tested positive for methadone, a drug he'd been prescribed for back pain.

The doctor who gave the drug test reported that Chaney might need further evaluation or a visit to his doctor "to fine-tune his medication." Providence subsequently required Chaney to submit to an evaluation by a third-party physician, Dr. Royce Van Gerpen, who examined Chaney on July 16, 2007, and determined he wasn't fit for duty due to his prescription medications, the ruling says.

However, prior to the evaluation by Van Gerpen, Chaney went to his own physician, Dr. Jeffrey Jamison, whose office issued a letter on July 5, 2007, that said Chaney was fit for duty, it says.

Providence sent Chaney a letter on July 31, 2007, stating that he was on leave effective July 16, the date he visited Van Gerpen. Providence dated the expiration of that leave Aug. 27, 2007, when he'd be fired if he didn't get a doctor's release to return to work, the ruling says. As part of that, the hospital erroneously directed Chaney to have Van Gerpen fill out a FMLA medical certification, although the act requires that an employee's personal physician do that, the Supreme Court majority found.

After Van Gerpen informed Providence of the FMLA requirement, the hospital directed Chaney to have Jamison fill out the medical certification form. The ruling says Jamison filled out the form on Aug. 10, writing that Chaney needed two to four weeks of leave but also "is OK to work as soon as employer allows."

Justice Tom Chambers wrote in the majority opinion, "On Aug. 16, 2007, Chaney indicated he was prepared to return to work. It is not clear what Providence told him at this point, but it appears Chaney was erroneously informed he needed Dr. Van Gerpen's permission to return to work. This violated the FMLA, under which Chaney could only be required to get authorization from his own health care provider, Dr. Jamison."

On Aug. 27, Chaney was fired, the lawsuit says.

Chambers added in the court decision, "Once Dr. Jamison wrote and signed the simple statement that Chaney was 'OK to work,' Chaney had satisfied the FMLA...If the hospital found the statement of fitness ambiguous, its option was not to terminate Chaney, but rather to seek clarification from Dr. Jamison."

In the dissenting opinion, author Justice Charles W. Johnson supported the jury's decision that considered evidence about the issue of Chaney's ability to work based on his prescription.

"Chaney was suspended from his job due to the effects of prescription medication," Johnson says. "Yet the supposed 'certification' neither addressed this condition nor indicated that Dr. Jamison had any idea as to the requirements of Chaney's job."

He adds, "A fitness-for-duty certification that fails to address the condition that prompted the suspension from work simply fails as a certification, especially in a case, like here, where the hospital owes a duty to its patients. At the very least, the jury should have some role in making this determination, which occurred here."

However, Chambers wrote that interpretation of statutes and regulations are issues of law to be determined by the courts, and that it wasn't appropriate for jurors to interpret FMLA regulations.

The ruling affirmed a state appellate court decision that the trial court erred in denying motions from both Chaney and Providence for a directed verdict, as a matter of law, on the issue of whether the hospital violated the FMLA.

Treva Lind
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