The Virginia Supreme Court has upheld a lower court decision ordering the reinstatement -- now with more than three years of back pay -- of a physician who was fired after complaining publicly about the quality of psychiatric care at a state-run hospital.
W. Harry Horner, M.D., an internist for six years at Western State Hospital in Staunton, Va., was fired on May 15, 2001, for what he called his "unremitting . . . protests of inadequate patient care."
Horner unsuccessfully challenged his firing through the state grievance procedure. After exhausting his administrative appeals, he filed a lawsuit in Staunton Circuit Court asking Judge Humes Franklin Jr. to overturn his dismissal.
Franklin ruled that Horner should be reinstated with back pay and all fringe benefits. The Virginia Court of Appeals overturned Franklin, but the Supreme Court held last week that Franklin was correct and threw out the Court of Appeals ruling.
Asked if he intended to return to work, Horner said: "Oh, absolutely. We've tentatively set a date of Aug. 1" to return.
But state mental health spokeswoman Martha Mead said a decision has not been made on whether Horner will be rehired. However, she said, "we would certainly uphold" the court order.
In August 1999, Horner criticized his bosses at Western State and the state mental health department, saying his efforts to get adequate psychiatric care for patients in his medical unit were like "talking into a void."
On March 14, 2001, he wrote the hospital's medical director that "inadequate patient care persists and demands to be addressed."
Two months later he was fired for "failure to follow a supervisor's instruction" and "failure to comply with written policy."
His immediate supervisor, Michael Clayton, M.D., said in an interview at the time that the charges against Horner "were, the best I can tell, all very contrived."
Clayton wrote that he supported "the complete reversal of disciplinary action." Higher-ranking hospital officials rejected Clayton's finding, and a hearing officer for the Virginia Department of Employment Dispute Resolution twice upheld Horner's dismissal.
But Franklin said Virginia law gave a state employee's immediate supervisor, in this case Clayton, the authority to make "a final readjustment" of a complaint.
The state attorney general's office had argued that allowing an immediate supervisor to make a final determination "would literally turn an agency chain of command upside down."
But Franklin said the law must be obeyed, and the Supreme Court agreed.
"Once the employee (Horner) accepted (Clayton's) remedy, the statutory scheme at the time precluded management from contesting the decision," the Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision written by Senior Justice A. Christian Compton.
The 2003 General Assembly amended the law to give an agency head final say on the resolution of an employment dispute, but the bill was not enacted until after the Staunton judge ruled in Horner's case.
Horner, who received the highest possible performance rating on his last job evaluation, estimated his back pay, benefits, interest and legal expenses at about $600,000.
The legal wrangling could have been avoided, said Horner.
"I offered to quit twice for a year's pay and a clean record," he said.