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Nurse wins $260,000 judgment against former Deaconess owners over domestic violence leave

A former nurse at Deaconess Hospital, shown here in 2016, recently won a $260,000 civil judgment against the hospital’s former owner, Community Health Systems, in a lawsuit that alleged that CHS refused to give her paid leave to deal her domestic violence issues. The hospital was purchased in 2017 is now owned by MultiCare Health System. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
A former nurse at Deaconess Hospital, shown here in 2016, recently won a $260,000 civil judgment against the hospital’s former owner, Community Health Systems, in a lawsuit that alleged that CHS refused to give her paid leave to deal her domestic violence issues. The hospital was purchased in 2017 is now owned by MultiCare Health System. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A Spokane nurse has won a $260,000 judgment against the former owners of Deaconess Hospital after she lost her job in 2015 following her denied request for paid leave because she had become the victim of domestic violence.

A jury on Aug. 23 awarded Cheryl M. Hafer, a registered nurse, some $160,000 in back pay and $100,000 in emotional distress as part of a legal case that took more than two years to resolve. Hafer sued the hospital under a state law that requires employers to allow employees to use paid sick time at work to get out of abusive situations.

The jury decision “is going to help her get back on her feet,” Hafer’s attorney, Pat Kirby, said. “She’s a single parent and a domestic violence victim. She suffered huge financial and emotional distress. This verdict will put her in a position that will help her … climb out of the financial hole that she was put into.”

One of the attorneys who represented Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, Heather Yakely, was out of the country Friday and could not be reached for comment.

Yakely and Gillian O’Hara, who also could not be reached, represented CHS, which sold Deaconess and Valley Hospital to MultiCare Health System in 2017. As part of the $425 million sale, which included Rockwood Clinic, CHS agreed to accept legal liability for any lawsuits that arose during its ownership, Kirby said.

Kirby noted that his client’s employment issues occurred just a year after Deaconess employee Sheena Henderson was shot and killed July 8, 2014, by her estranged husband, Christopher Henderson, 37, who then committed suicide.

Prior to that shooting, Christopher Henderson, who was a former law enforcement officer from Missouri, retrieved a gun from Spokane police after it had been confiscated earlier by Spokane Valley police officers, who responded to reports that Henderson was making suicidal comments at work.

In response to the killing, the Washington Legislature passed two laws: The Sheena Henderson Act of 2015 requires notification of worried family members before police return guns they have seized from certain suspects. In 2016, the Legislature passed a second bill that allows police to recommend mental health professionals contact a person who has threatened or attempted suicide.

Domestic problems

But Kirby said he believes the shooting led to actions by Deaconess to discriminate against his client after she reported becoming a victim of domestic violence about six months following the Henderson double homicide.

“Deaconess didn’t want to deal with a nurse having domestic violence issues,” Kirby said. “My personal belief is they don’t want domestic violence victims working there because they don’t want another shooting on their campus.”

Asked to respond to Kirby’s allegations, hospital spokesman Kevin Maloney wrote: “This is an issue between CHS (Community Health System) and Ms. Hafer and MultiCare was not and is not involved in this lawsuit.”

Hafer began working at Deaconess in 2011 as a nurse in its cardiac acute care unit.

The problems started on Nov. 21, 2014, when Hafer checked herself into the Deaconess emergency room after she allegedly was assaulted by her boyfriend, according to court records. She then informed her nursing supervisor and Deaconess security and sought protection from the boyfriend while she was at work.

Then in April 2015, Hafer’s supervisor met with her to talk about “issues at home.”

The supervisor told Hafer that she didn’t want her discussing the alleged domestic violence at work and then asked Hafer if she needed time off, court records state. Fearing for her job, Hafer did not ask for time off.

But she changed her mind weeks later and asked for a month off to increase safety for herself and her two minor children, Kirby wrote. The supervisor denied the request and said Hafer couldn’t have time off until the current six-week work cycle had ended.

Then began a series of requests by Deaconess to fill out various forms or directives for Hafer to use her vacation time. At no time was she allowed to take paid time off as contemplated by the existing state law, Kirby said.

After noticing her paycheck in late June was not the amount she expected, Hafer was told she didn’t have enough vacation time to cover her two-week absence. She returned to work on July 1, 2015, because she couldn’t cover bills at home, Kirby said.

The next day, after she again had been assaulted at home, Hafer made a mistake on a blood transfusion that another nurse also missed. The patient was not injured. While the other nurse faced no discipline, nor did several other nurses for similar mistakes, Deaconess immediately told Hafer to report to human resources rather than report to her job.

Hospital officials removed her from the cardiac acute care unit and then began offering her part-time jobs that were not permanent and carried no benefits, which Hafer said she needed to care for her children.

She eventually was “effectively discharged” from Deaconess and took a job at the Rockwood Clinic. Hafer also filed a complaint with Washington State Labor & Industries over the domestic-violence paid leave issue.

She and Kirby filed the legal complaint that led to the lawsuit in spring 2017 and the jury trial was completed on Aug. 23 before Spokane County Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary.

In court filings, Yakely, the attorney for CHS, had asked Clary to dismiss the case as a matter of law. Yakely denied in court filings that Deaconess discriminated against Hafer in any way.

“Ms. Hafer failed to present any evidence that her working conditions were so ‘intolerable’ that a reasonable person in her position would have been forced to quit,” Yakely wrote. “The evidence in this case has established that the plaintiff voluntarily resigned from her employment at Deaconess to pursue a different career opportunity at Rockwood.”

The jury sided with Hafer and agreed 11-1 that Deaconess failed to restore her to her previous job and 12-0 that the hospital failed to restore Hafer to an equivalent position.

“She lost income due to the unlawful termination,” Kirby said. “Her credit rating was destroyed. She had to find other means to support her children, including going to the food bank. She moved back in with her parents.”

Hafer only recently has found a solid living situation, some four years after problems started with her job at Deaconess.

“She’s finally found another job that will pay her the same amount she was making when she left Deaconess,” Kirby said. “It took her a while to find suitable employment and to get her children the counseling they needed and for her to get into a safe situation.”

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