A nurse recently won a $41 million jury verdict in her discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit against Kaiser Permanente, a health care provider based in Oakland, Calif.
In 2021, a former charge nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Woodland Hills Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Los Angeles sued Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Kaiser Foundation Health Plan for age discrimination, age harassment, disability discrimination, failure to accommodate a disability, failure to engage in the interactive process, retaliation in violation of California’s antidiscrimination law, failure to prevent discrimination, wrongful termination, whistleblower retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The charge nurse was fired in 2019. She said a supervisor and other employees made multiple comments about her age, including comments about retirement and statements implying she was taking advantage of younger employees. Kaiser said these were isolated, offhand comments that didn’t amount to harassment.
Kaiser argued that the plaintiff was not performing her job satisfactorily and could not prove that her age and/or disability caused her termination. It claimed the plaintiff violated company policies by sitting in a patient chair in the NICU while using her personal cell phone and placing her bare feet on an isolette that was holding a sick newborn baby, according to court documents.
Kaiser also argued that disability was not a factor in the plaintiff’s termination because the decision to terminate her was made before she took disability leave. The plaintiff said the company did not make the termination decision until after she suffered a workplace accident that caused her disability.
“We stand by her termination and are surprised and disappointed in the verdict. Kaiser Permanente plans to appeal this decision and will maintain our high standards in protecting the health and safety of all our patients,” said Murtaza Sanwari, senior vice president and area
manager, Kaiser Permanente Woodland Hills/West Ventura County. The plaintiff’s “actions were egregious and in violation of our infection control policies and standards.”
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A jury awarded the charge nurse $11.49 million in compensatory damages, including $9 million for emotional distress, and $30 million in punitive damages — totaling more than $41 million, according to the jurors’ verdict forms.
The plaintiff alleged that her termination was in retaliation for raising concerns about quality of care and patient safety, primarily due to alleged understaffing at Kaiser. During the trial, witnesses supported claims of understaffing at the facility.
Before she was fired, the charge nurse reported that two Kaiser nurses didn’t know what kind of catheter to use on a baby in critical condition and didn’t ask her for help. One nurse also failed to feed a baby, and a staff member violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act by giving a baby’s information to an alleged father whose paternity had not yet been confirmed. Kaiser argued that the plaintiff could not bring whistleblower charges because she did not report something that was against the law, according to court documents.
California is among the most heavily regulated states regarding the employer/employee relationship. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation in employment on the basis of age, disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, and military or veteran status. The FEHA applies to employers in California with five or more full- or part-time employees.