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Former nurse wins more than $1 million in wrongful termination suit

A rehabilitation facility nurse who claimed wrongful termination after she allegedly witnessed possible mishandling of medication has won a million dollars in punitive damages from a Springfield jury.

“We argued that there was a pattern of retaliation that occurred against Kristal over the next few months, which culminated in December when she was written up, moved out of her position and put on the floor as a floor nurse and moved from first shift to second shift,” said Benjamin Stringer of Hall Ansley, which represented plaintiff Kristal Seybert.

Seybert worked as a licensed practical nurse at The Maples nursing facility, operated by Central Health Corp., beginning in 2007. In 2010, she was promoted to minimum data set, or MDS, coordinator, which required her to evaluate the condition and needs of nursing home residents following admission to the facility.

The dispute of the suit began in the summer of 2012 when Seybert said she saw narcotic medication being left out in the office of the director of nursing, and that she reported the matter to the assistant director, Stringer said. Eventually, the head of the facility conducted an investigation, although little action was taken, Stringer said.

“He did arrange for some drug testing and he did reprimand the director and another employee because they weren’t storing the medication properly,” he said. “They weren’t managing those products within the home appropriately and there were at least two pills that were confirmed missing from this bottle.”

Seybert was later demoted from her position as MDS coordinator after a state review of the facility. The defense contended that the review had turned up deficiencies in the performance of Seybert’s duties and that had been the reason for the move, Stringer said. However, he contended that most of the problems were minor and involved simple clerical errors.

After Sybert’s demotion from MDS coordinator, she wrote the head of the facility regarding her ongoing concerns over handling of medication, Stringer said. Another investigation ensued and a nurse consultant employed by the company identified possible issues related to storage and the system used for management of medication, he said.

However, he said the investigator never spoke to Seybert. Moreover, Seybert was again written up for allegedly breaching the confidentiality of the investigation by discussing it with colleagues. Stringer said Seybert responded to questions from another employee on the matter and had not been instructed to do otherwise.

“She was never told that she couldn’t just tell people that she had reported her concerns and there was going to be an investigation,” he said. “They wrote her up without even coming to her and asking who she talked to, what she said or why she said it.”

Seybert was terminated after another write-up over her alleged failure to properly enter telephone orders from a physician, Stringer said. But Stringer said that video evidence he introduced at trial showed that she did complete the proper requisition forms during the incident in question.

Seybert also suffered from migraine headaches, which sometimes caused absences, Stringer said. However, Stringer said she’d previously been allowed to use flex time with regards to the headache-related absences, something he said the facility ceased to allow after the investigations.

“Our argument was that all of this stuff was just a smokescreen to get rid of her,” said Stringer, who noted that the headaches were documented by Seybert’s doctor.

Seybert sued claiming both wrongful discharge and disability discrimination due to her headaches.

Jurors found in her favor on both counts, awarding $46,000. However, the panel also tacked on $1 million dollars in punitive damages.

Virginia Fry and Ashley Norgard of Husch Blackwell, which represented the defendant, did not return calls requesting comment.

$1,046,000

Wrongful termination, disability discrimination

Venue: Greene County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 1331-CC01212/March 10, 2016

Judge: Michael Cordonnier

Caption: Kristal Seybert v. Central Health Corporation

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Benjamin Stringer and Timothy Ricker, Hall Ansley, Springfield

Defendant’s Attorneys: Virginia Fry and Ashley Norgard, Husch Blackwell, Springfield

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