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Recent Missouri Supreme Court Case: Farrow v. Saint Francis Medical Center and Cedric C. Strange

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On August 27, 2013, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued its decision in the case of Farrow v. Saint Francis Medical Center and Cedric C. Strange. Madonna Farrow appealed the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Saint Francis Medical Center (“Hospital”). Farrow originally alleged violations of the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) in connection with the termination of her employment.

The Hospital hired Farrow in 1991 as a staff nurse on the progressive cardiac floor. In December 2005, Cedric Strange propositioned Farrow about having an affair. Farrow rejected Dr. Strange’s proposition and told him his comments were inappropriate. Farrow attempted to avoid Dr. Strange following the conversation and reported the incident to the Hospital’s human resources department. Farrow alleged that Dr. Strange made another inappropriate comment to her in February 2006. While working on an emergency procedure with Dr. Strange, Farrow was paged by another doctor who needed her assistance. Farrow alleged that Dr. Strange whispered in her ear, “I understand now. You like the black stuff better than the white,” referring to the ethnicity of the other doctor.

Following these two incidents, Farrow alleged that she was retaliated against by the Hospital and Dr. Strange. Specifically, the Hospital prohibited Farrow from performing various duties that she had previously been assigned. Farrow also contended that Dr. Strange made defamatory statements about the quality of her work. Farrow subsequently placed documentation in her personnel file regarding both the Hospital and Dr. Strange’s actions (collectively “Defendants”).

After transferring to another department and back to the progressive cardiac floor, Farrow suffered from anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, and concerns about keeping her job. In January 2007, Farrow placed additional documentation in her personnel file. Farrow also requested that the matter be investigated. The Hospital president indicated that he would review the matter. By April 2007, the Hospital president had yet to do so.

In May 2008, Farrow as written up for unprofessional conduct. When Farrow went to the human resources department, she discovered that all of her documented complaints were missing. Farrow later encountered Dr. Strange in the hallway, who stated that he was “still going to get her out.” Farrow alleged that the Hospital continued to retaliate against her by – among other things – changing her compensation agreement, stripping her of hours, and prohibiting her from working overtime.

The Hospital terminated Farrow on December 10, 2008. The notice of termination stated the decision was based upon Farrow’s failure to meet customer service standards.

In her complaint, Farrow alleged several violations of the MHRA. The Defendants argued that Farrow’s first three claims failed to satisfy the statutory prerequisites for filing a lawsuit under the MHRA. Section 213.075 of the MHRA requires any person to file a complaint within 180 days of the alleged discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”). Farrow filed her claim on July 27, 2009 – 230 days after the date she was terminated. The Commission issued a right-to-sue letter to Farrow on December 19, 2009. Defendants argued that the Commission was required to issue a right-to-sue letter regardless of whether the claim was timely. The Court rejected Defendant’s argument. The Court made clear that by issuing the right-to-sue letter, the Commission implicitly found that Farrow’s claim was timely.

Alternatively, the Hospital argued that it could not be liable for Farrow’s first three claims because it was not an “employer.” Section 213.010(7) of the MHRA defines an “employer” for purposes of Missouri’s antidiscrimination law and specifically excludes “corporations and associations owned and operated by religious or sectarian groups.” Commission regulations require that the corporation or association be one hundred percent owned and operated by a religious or sectarian group. The Hospital argued that it fell within the exclusion because its articles of incorporation required that it be “operated as a Catholic hospital.” The Court rejected this argument, making clear that the statutory exclusion applies only if the employer is owned and operated by a religious group. Here, the Hospital did not – and could not – show that it was owned by a religious or sectarian group. Because the Hospital was organized as a non-profit, it did not have “owners” in the sense that a corporation has owners (i.e., shareholders). The Court concluded that the Hospital could not qualify for the statutory exclusion and therefore was potentially liable under the MHRA.

The Court also discussed the so-called public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine. Farrow alleged that her termination was in contravention of public policy contained in the Nursing Practice Act (“NPA”). Generally, an employer can discharge an at-will employee for any reason. There are, however, exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. For example, an at-will employee may not be terminated for refusing to violate the law or any well-established and clear mandate of public policy as expressed in the constitution, statutes, regulations, or rules created by a government body. Farrow contended that she was terminated – at least in part – for her objection to, and failure to comply with, the changes to the peripherally inserted central catheter (“PICC”) line procedure program. A change in Hospital policy required non-nurses to perform these procedures. Farrow asserted that the use of non-nurses to administer PICC lines violated the NPA and put patients at risk. As a nurse, the NPA regulates Farrow’s license and job duties, which reflects the clear mandate of public policy to serve the best interests of patients. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment for the Hospital on this claim.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you or otherwise violated your employment rights in the workplace, you should contact a St. Louis employment lawyer.

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