In a decision of interest to healthcare industry employers and whistleblowers, the Supreme Court of the State of New York further limited the class of employees protected by New York Labor Law § 741 (“§741”), commonly known as the “Health Care Whistleblower Law.”
In Von Maack v. Wyckoff Heights Medical Center
, 504150/13, a hospital staff pharmacist alleged that her employer, a hospital, revengefully terminated her for reporting unsafe conditions in the hospital’s pharmacy to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”). The hospital, on the other hand, contended that Von Maack was terminated for her uncooperative behavior. Prior to this suit, an arbitrator found that Von Maack was terminated for “just cause,” however, Von Maack, represented by her 1199 SEIU union counsel, never conveyed her whistleblower defense.
The grounds for dismissal by the Supreme Court of the State of New York were as follows: 1) a pharmacist, is not an “employee” for purposes of the health care whistleblower law because pharmacists do not perform “health care services;” 2) the doctrine of collateral estoppel, whereby litigants are prohibited from re-raising previously decided issues, bars the claim; and 3) the complaint didn’t identify exactly which law, rule or regulation the hospital violated, thereby endangering the health or safety of the public or a specific patient.
The court’s strange decision to limit the definition of “employee” under §741 will likely be the most controversial aspect of its judgment. According to the court, pharmacists, do not make judgments as to the quality of patient care, and as such, are not entitled to the “exceptional and specialized whistleblower protection.” Thus, relying on past precedent, the court held that pharmacists do not perform “health care services” under §741.
Further, this case shows the importance of choosing arguments to bring forth in arbitration. Litigants must always present all of their arguments in arbitration or else risk having the argument not heard. Here, the court held that, although it might appear that the arbitrator decided an independent issue, the doctrine barred the claim because the underlying issue was the same, whether Von Maack was justly terminated. Von Maack should have raised her whistleblower retaliation argument during the arbitration hearing. To avoid similar mishaps, healthcare employees should ensure that their counsel understands the intricacies of argument preclusion and collateral estoppel, especially union employees facing arbitration.
Additionally, the decision illustrates the importance of pleading all required elements properly. Von Maack, relying on a pharmacy regulation, didn’t point to the specific section within the regulation the hospital violated. Likewise, her complaint stated that the danger may potentially threaten the health or safety of the public or a specific patient, rather than pointing to a specific instance where the health or safety of a patient was in jeopardy.
Clearly, the importance of proper pleadings and understanding the procedural intricacies of whistleblower retaliation claims cannot be emphasized enough. Healthcare industry employers and employees preparing for a §741 claim should always seek counsel familiar with, not just labor law, but healthcare law, whistleblower laws, and litigation and arbitration procedures.