An emergency medicine physician who says he was wrongfully terminated for publicly criticizing his Washington state hospital's coronavirus response is now suing his former employer.
Dr. Ming Lin on Thursday sued PeaceHealth, a Vancouver, Wash.-based health system that owns the Bellingham, Wash. hospital where he had worked since 2003, and TeamHealth, the Knoxville, Tenn.-based physician staffing company that contracted him to work there. Richard DeCarlo, PeaceHealth's chief operating officer, is also listed as a defendant.
The ACLU of Washington is serving as co-counsel on the case.
"To have to fight the illness but then also hospital administration is just a shame," said Jamal Whitehead, an attorney with Schroeter Goldmark & Bender who is serving as an ACLU cooperating attorney on the case. "Really it should be a collaboration. Dr. Lin doing what he did could have sparked a dialogue. But instead it turned adversarial."
Lin had been a vocal critic of what he said was a lack of COVID-19 protection for staff at St. Joseph Medical Center. He posted to Facebook on March 15 an email he had written to managers at the hospital, where he had worked as an emergency physician since May 2003, expressing his concern for the safety of both employees and patients. Neither PeaceHealth nor TeamHealth have social media policies that prohibit his use of Facebook, according to the complaint.
Lin's complaint says he was told via text message on March 27 that his shift at St. Joseph Medical Center had been covered, despite not having requested to be removed from the schedule. Three days later, he received an email from a TeamHealth executive to discuss options for his next assignment, possibly in Oregon. The email said TeamHealth had no "full-time EM Physician openings in the area."
When Lin asked to be reinstated at St. Joseph, the TeamHealth executive, West Group President Dr. Robert Frantz, allegedly responded, "While we believe your actions and comments both inside and outside of work were intended to be constructive and a catalyst for change, unfortunately it is not possible for you to return to PeaceHealth."
A TeamHealth spokesman said any claim that Lin was terminated is "simply false." The company said Lin is still a paid TeamHealth physician and it has offered to place him at another contracted hospital anywhere in the country.
Meanwhile, PeaceHealth's DeCarlo confirmed PeaceHealth had asked for Lin to be removed from the hospital during an April 4 YouTube interview with the physician and popular Internet personality, ZDoggMD. DeCarlo said Lin had posted misinformation on Facebook and cut off communication with his medical director and colleagues.
"We did ask for him to be removed because we didn't feel like he could adequately perform the services that he was in a state where he had created a toxic environment, really, between the ER staff and himself and it was really difficult for people to come and do their work in this incredibly critical time," DeCarlo said in the interview.
PeaceHealth spokesman Jeremy Rush confirmed in a statement that the health system asked TeamHealth to remove Lin from the emergency department schedule because Lin "chose to not use designated safety reporting channels, and his actions were disruptive, compromised collaboration in the midst of a crisis and contributed to the creation of fear and anxiety among staff and the community."
Lin's complaint says DeCarlo's statements are untrue and defamatory.
Whatcom County, Wash., where the lawsuit was filed, had 384 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 33 deaths from the illness as of May 28, according to the county's health department.
Lin's lawsuit includes six causes of action: wrongful termination in violation of public policy, tortious interference with a contractual relation, breach of contract and the duty of good faith and fair dealing, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. He is seeking reinstatement, damages for lost wages and benefits, damages for emotional distress, interest and attorneys' fees.
Hospitals must not just care for patients, they must care for entire communities, and that requires responsibility for the failures that whistleblowers point out, ACLU-WA senior staff attorney Antoinette Davis said in a statement.
"Rather than stifling speech and removing individuals that point out deficiencies in their practices, they instead should listen, eliminate the problems that threaten people's health, and encourage the experts on their staff to come forward with solutions," she said.