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Flick v. Southern Illinois Healthcare, NFP

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fifth District

November 5, 2014

CINDY FLICK, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS HEALTHCARE, NFP, d/b/a Southern Illinois Hospital Services, Inc., Defendant-Appellee

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County. No. 06-L-8 Honorable Christy Solverson, Judge, presiding.

Affirmed.

SYLLABUS

In plaintiff's action for retaliatory discharge, the appellate court affirmed the entry of summary judgment for defendant hospital on the ground that plaintiff failed to establish a causal connection between her report of concerns about quality control failures in one of the hospital laboratories she oversaw in her role as director of laboratories and her termination, since the termination occurred two years after the report of the quality control failures and that period was sufficient to preclude any causal connection, especially when plaintiff was an at-will employee who could have been terminated at any time, and plaintiff did not present any evidence supporting her claim that her termination was delayed due to the sensitive nature of the report, and as an alternative, a two-year campaign of retaliatory actions was waged before she was actually terminated.

For Appellant: L. Douglas Gill, Hughes Law Firm, Carbondale, IL.

For Appellee: Shari R. Rhode, Rhode & Jackson, P.C., Carbondale, IL.

JUSTICE CHAPMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Goldenhersh and Cates concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Page 83

CHAPMAN, JUSTICE

[¶1] The plaintiff, Cindy Flick, worked for the defendant, Southern Illinois Healthcare, NFP, as the director of its medical laboratories. Shortly after raising concerns about one laboratory's compliance with federal regulations, the plaintiff was presented with a severance agreement. She chose not to resign, and her supervisor did not terminate her employment at that time. Two years later, however, the plaintiff was again presented with a severance agreement. This time, she was terminated after refusing to accept the agreement. The plaintiff filed a suit alleging retaliatory discharge. The court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence to establish a causal connection between her raising concerns and her termination. The primary basis for the court's ruling was a gap of nearly two years between the time she raised those concerns and the time she was fired. The plaintiff appeals, arguing that genuine issues of material fact remained regarding the causation issue. We affirm.

[¶2] The defendant operates three hospitals in southern Illinois. The plaintiff was hired as the manager of the medical laboratory at one of those hospitals in 2000. In 2001, she was promoted to the position of director of laboratories. In her deposition, the plaintiff explained that she approached her supervisor, Memorial Hospital administrator George Maroney, and suggested ways to consolidate some of the functions of the three labs that would make their operation more efficient. Maroney told her to write up a job description for a new position which would be responsible for implementing the plaintiff's suggestions for consolidation. She did so, and Maroney promoted her to the new position. This promotion came with a " substantial" pay increase.

[¶3] In her role as director of laboratories, the plaintiff continued to manage the laboratory at Memorial Hospital; in addition, she oversaw some of the functions of the laboratories at the defendant's other hospitals--Herrin and St. Joseph. However, she did not have direct supervisory authority over the employees of the Herrin and St. Joseph labs; instead, she oversaw their operations in what she described as a " consulting role." As a result of the consolidations of operations the plaintiff recommended, the responsibility and authority of the lab managers at Herrin Hospital and St. Joseph Hospital decreased.

[¶4] In July 2003, the plaintiff discovered quality control failures in the chemistry department at Herrin Hospital's lab. According to the plaintiff, this situation amounted to a violation of the federal Clinical

Page 84

Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) (42 U.S.C. § 263a et seq. (2000)). She reported her concerns to Dr. Padmalatha, the medical director of the Herrin Hospital lab, and Al Green, the manager of the lab. In August 2003, she presented a corrective action plan to Green to address the quality control issues. The plaintiff did not believe Green was taking appropriate actions to fix the problem. Therefore, she presented her concerns to Maroney and Rebecca Ashton, the administrator of Herrin Hospital, who was Green's direct supervisor. According to the plaintiff, she discussed the matter with Dr. Padmalatha, who agreed that corrective measures needed to be taken.

[¶5] On November 10, 2003, Maroney called the plaintiff into his office. He told her that her management style was not conducive to a long-term relationship with the hospital and presented her with a severance agreement. Two days later, on November 12, the plaintiff called the defendant's compliance help line to report her concerns regarding possible CLIA violations in the Herrin Hospital laboratory. On November 18, the plaintiff once again met with Maroney. She told him that she did not wish to accept the severance agreement. Maroney did not terminate the plaintiff's employment at this time; however, he did limit her responsibilities as director of laboratories. Specifically, he told her that she was to have no role in the operation of the Herrin Hospital lab. According to the defendant, Maroney told the plaintiff that as a result of this limit on her responsibilities, the plaintiff's salary would be frozen and she would be ineligible for annual raises. This was because the salary increase she received when she was promoted to director of laboratories was based on her oversight of all three labs.

[¶6] As a result of the plaintiff's call to the compliance help line, compliance officer Christie Connelly conducted an investigation of her claims. Connelly found no CLIA violations, but did find violations of the defendant's own internal policies, for which corrective ...


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