The Employer's Legal Resource: Court Rules That Nurse Fired For Complaining About Patient's Treatment Stated “Burk” Tort Claim
In Robinson v. St. John Medical Center, Ms. Robinson, an African-American registered nurse, alleges she was terminated after complaining to her supervisor and treating physicians about the medical treatment provided to an African-American patient with sickle cell anemia. Robinson complained that the patient was in significant pain and, in her opinion, the patient's medical needs were being ignored by St. John. Robinson's supervisor told her to stop "managing the patient's case," even though that was part of her job description as an RN. Approximately one week later, Robinson was terminated for "undermining a physician."
Robinson filed suit against St. John, asserting several claims for relief, including a Burk tort claim. In Burk v. K-Mart Corp., the Oklahoma Supreme Court adopted a public policy exception to the state's long held at-will employment doctrine where an employee's discharge is contrary to Oklahoma public policy as articulated by constitutional, statutory, or case law. St. John moved to dismiss Robinson's Burk tort claim, alleging she did not identify a clear mandate of public policy and did not set forth plausible facts establishing she performed an act consistent with such policy. Robinson's petition stated her Burk tort claim was based on her allegation that she was fired in response for complaining the allegedly improper medical care provided to the patient. Robinson cited a number of Oklahoma nursing standards and regulations that impose penalties and set standards relating to proper medical care of patients in support of her Burk tort claim.
Denying St. John's motion to dismiss, the court found that it is certainly plausible that public policy mandates proper health care for patients under governing medical standards. The court further stated that, in addition to the nursing standards cited by Robinson, her factual allegations supported her claim that she was terminated for performing acts consistent with such policy.
This decision was based completely on Robinson's allegations - did she claim enough to go forward. Next, the parties will present evidence to determine whether, in fact, Robinson's allegations are true. Ultimately, a jury may decide whether St. John terminated Robinson for the reason she claims or for some other reason entirely.
By Kenneth T. Short, email@example.com