8 Nurses Sue Hospital, Claiming Retaliation & Wrongful Termination


                                                             By Shannon Firth

Eight nurses fired by Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit against the hospital for wrongful termination, claiming the hospital retaliated against them for reporting unsafe conditions.

The nurses alleged an "ongoing degradation of care," based on more than 600 official reports filed by nurses over the last 6 months, most frequently in relation to nurse staffing shortages across different units of the hospital.

In the emergency department (ED), for example, different numbers of nurses are needed at different times, said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, co-chair of the local bargaining unit for the Saint Vincent Hospital nurses, who has worked at the hospital for over 37 years.

"We've had only four nurses on with sometimes over 150 patients in that emergency room ... It's criminal," said Pellegrino.

"We can't even get in to change our patients. Like, literally, they're laying in urine and stool for more hours than they should ever be," she said. "Their call lights are going unanswered. That's not standard of care. It's not quality care."

Complaints in the lawsuit, which named Dallas-based owner Tenet Healthcare in addition to Saint Vincent, also included allegations of delayed patient transfers to appropriate units, unattended patients falling, and a pregnant woman in labor who waited over 5 hours for a C-section.

According to Pellegrino, nine nurses were terminated for "doing what they're legally and morally bound to do" -- meaning advocating for their patients (eight of the nine nurses filed complaints). Any nurse that accepts an unsafe patient assignment knowing that he or she cannot provide the necessary care is legally responsible for providing that care, she said.

She further noted that hospital administrators are responsible for providing the staff needed to provide that care, adding that nurses are not going to be "complicit in their bad behavior," referring to administrators pressuring nurses to take on more patients than they can safely care for.

One plaintiff, Alicia Dagle-Metz, RN, was allegedly terminated for "theft" after receiving a suture for a lacerated finger to allow her to continue to work when her department was short-staffed, and for using her cell phone. Staff "routinely used cell phones in the ED and all over SVH [Saint Vincent's Hospital] for work-related purposes," the lawsuit noted.

Another plaintiff, Katherine Antos, RN, was allegedly threatened by a unit manager with "patient abandonment" after she objected to taking a fifth patient in a cardiac step-down unit, which was more than the stated limit in the hospital's collective bargaining agreement.

All of the plaintiffs drafted or signed "unsafe staffing forms" that were submitted to hospital managers prior to their being fired or placed on unpaid leave, the lawsuit stated.

Carla LeBlanc, RN, a recovery room nurse at Saint Vincent's, said "I wouldn't want to be a patient someplace where the nurses were afraid to speak up about safety concerns. And that's what's happening here."

Nurses either "stand up and fight" and risk termination and harassment, or they stay silent, she said. "I don't think there's a nurse in the building ... who isn't thinking of what their exit plan out is."

Pellegrino said many younger nurses have left before even finishing orientation, and she knows of other nurses who carry their resignation letters in their pockets, waiting for the moment when "they can't take anymore."

The lawsuit was introduced under the state's Healthcare Whistleblower statute, which is meant to protect licensed healthcare providers from termination or other retaliatory measures by employers for sharing or threatening to share with "a public body an activity, policy or practice of the healthcare facility ... that the healthcare provider reasonably believes is in violation of a law or rule or regulation ... or in violation of professional standards of practice which the healthcare provider reasonably believes poses a risk to public health," the MNA announced.

The lawsuit points to state regulations for the practice of nursing, which note that "registered nurses bear full responsibility for the quality of nursing care he or she provides to individuals or groups." The same rules hold nurse administrators responsible for providing adequate resources to enable frontline nurses "to meet these accepted standards of care,".

The lawsuit follows close on the heels of a report from the Joint Commission, whose own investigation found that Saint Vincent was "non-compliant with applicable Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) conditions," according to an earlier press release.

In March 2021, nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital began a record-long strike, which ended in January 2022.

"It's been two and a half years. They haven't honored our contract, and the war against us continues every day," Pellegrino said. "This hospital could fix this, [but] they want to bring more money in. The [fewer] nurses you have, the more money they make."

Asked why she has stayed, Pellegrino, who graduated from the Saint Vincent Hospital School of Nursing in 1986, said, "It's our home. Tenet came into our home, and destroyed it ... These patients need protecting."


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