Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Petruccelli won nearly $1.19 million for a health care risk manager, who sued her former employer over what she claimed was a retaliatory firing.
Petruccelli’s client, Patricia Wise-Youngren, lost her job after reporting Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center encouraged its nurses to deliver medical care beyond the scope of their licenses beginning in August 2013.
Her lawsuit claimed she had learned at a March 2014 staff meeting that licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, worked without proper supervision, dispensed medications, independently cared for patients and performed other tasks in violation of state law.
Wise-Youngren claimed she urged the Davenport hospital to disclose the alleged violations to regulators.
‘My client felt that if these (claims) were in fact true, they needed to be investigated,” said Petruccelli, a board-certified civil trial lawyer who’s also helped hospitals fend off medical malpractice suits.
Wise-Youngren claimed that instead of deferring to her as the administrator tasked with minimizing risks, Heart of Florida punished her for wanting to reach out to state and federal authorities. By June 2014, months after the meeting she said incited her concerns, Wise-Youngren was out of a job.
She filed a whistleblower lawsuit about a year later in June 2015 against Haines City HMA LLC, which does business as Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center.
The two-count complaint alleged intentional interference with a business relationship and demanded a jury trial. It invoked Florida’s Private Sector Whistleblower Act, which protects workers who file complaints, report injuries or exercise other rights.
Wise-Youngren’s suit suggested she tried to persuade the corporation to self-report by refusing to condone or participate in the alleged infractions. It claimed she filed four internal compliance reports in three months from March to May 2014 urging the hospital to take action.
But the company rejected her advice, according to the lawsuit.
“Upper management informed the plaintiff that it was ‘not an issue,’” the complaint stated.
For Petruccelli, the biggest challenge was how to persuade the jury to side with his client using only circumstantial evidence and no direct proof of her allegations.
The hospital operator denied violating scope-of-practice regulations and said it fired Wise-Youngren for legitimate reasons. It denied any retaliatory actions and said the former employee had never complained about alleged violations.
Responding to details in Wise-Youngren’s suit, the company acknowledged it laid off her assistant but only as part of a “reduction in force that affected multiple positions.”
“Plaintiff fails to state a claim under the (Florida Whistleblower Act), because (she) did not engage in any good-faith participation or opposition conduct protected under the FWA,” Haines City attorneys Alysa J. Ward and Charles E. Stewart III wrote in the answer and affirmative defenses. Wise-Youngren “can not establish any alleged opposition conduct was based upon any reasonable belief that her employer was engaged in any conduct in violation of a law, rule or regulation.”
All the paperwork seemed to support the hospital operator’s position.
Reports in Wise-Youngren’s personnel file cited poor job performance, failure to take initiative and disregard for completing essential tasks on time.
But the plaintiff said the notes appeared only after the March meeting. She claimed the company excluded her from further meetings discussing nursing roles. She also alleged the group secretly stripped her of credentials that would have allowed her access to some computer functions, making it impossible for her to perform her duties.
“She was being sworn at at work, being treated rudely,” Petruccelli said. “They excluded her, and this is with the CEO’s approval.”
By the time the case went to trial years later in March 2018, it was clear to Petruccelli that the jury would need to understand his client’s motives for defying her former employer.
“This is important because hospital risk managers have obligations, by virtue of their license, to stand up for patients and do the right thing,” he said. “They should be free to do so, even if their employers may not be in favor of it.”
The plaintiff’s case hinged on showing jurors that Wise-Youngren advocated for alerting regulators. But how could attorneys prove this?
Wise-Youngren thought the hospital had meeting notes that would back up her claim of speaking out when she first learned of the alleged violations. But she didn’t have a copy of the minutes, and the hospital wasn’t inclined to point her in the right direction.
Fortunately for Wise-Youngren, former co-worker Dottie Mileto testified in her favor and confirmed the record of that March 2014 meeting noted a discussion about reporting the alleged violations to state and federal authorities.
Mileto’s testimony aided Wise-Youngren but cost her dearly, according to Petruccelli, whose Petruccelli Law firm has offices in Fort Lauderdale and Naples. Mileto found herself unemployed after managers persuaded her to take a job at an affiliated hospital, without telling her of plans to sell and downsize that company, according to Petruccelli.
“What we found out is there was an issue of witness intimidation,” Petruccelli said. “The jury heard all of this.”
After a five-day trial in Polk Circuit Court, jurors returned a $1 million verdict for Wise-Youngren on March 23. Jurors found wrongful termination and awarded $438,563 for past lost wages and $561,437 for emotional pain, mental anguish and past and future injury.
On April 30, Polk Circuit Judge Sharon M. Franklin granted the plaintiff’s post-verdict motion seeking to compensate Wise-Youngren for income lost since her firing and added $118,873 in damages for front pay. This brought the total award to about $1.12 million.
“We had a good client,” Petruccelli said. “We hope we did her justice.”
Case: Patricia Wise-Youngren v. Haines Cithy HMA d/b/a Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center
Case No.: 2015-CA-002096-0000-00 (07)
Filing date: June 9, 2015
Verdict date: March 23, 2018
Judge: Polk Circuit Judge Sharon M. Franklin
Plaintiffs attorneys: Michael A. Petruccelli, Petruccelli Law, Fort Lauderdale and Naples
Defense attorneys: Alysa J. Ward, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, Tampa; and Charles E. Stewart III, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, Montgomery, Alabama
Verdict amount: $1 million