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Appellate Court Upholds Discharge of Physician Who Refused to Treat Patients with STDs

By Christopher S. Crawford

Is a female physician who is fired for her refusal to treat male patients with STDs able to sue her employer?  Not according to the case of Lucas v. County of Cook.
            
The plaintiff/physician objected to treating male patients with STDs.  In an effort to accommodate her objection, the employer offered her a ten day period of training in the safe handling of such patients.  Claiming that the offered training was still unsafe, the physician refused to participate in the training and even reported the employer to the appropriate regulatory bodies concerning the allegedly inadequate training.  After the employer warned the physician of potential termination in the event she did not complete the training, the physician persisted in her refusal and was terminated.

The physician sued her employer for wrongful termination, claiming that she was fired, not for objecting to the treatment of male patients with STDs, but for having reported the employer’s unsafe training practices. 

The first legal theory the physician advanced was under the Whistleblower Act, which holds that an employee is wrongful terminated if termination was for a refusal to participate in an activity that would violate state or federal law.  The appellate court upheld summary judgment for the employer on this theory, holding that the employee could not credibly argue that the employer’s training was inadequate or unsafe if she had failed to participated in it to begin with.

The physician’s second legal theory was that of retaliatory discharge: an employee is wrongfully terminated if termination was in violation of a clear and specific mandated public policy.  The appellate court did not feel that termination under the circumstances was in contravention to public policy under these circumstances.  The reporting of “medical practice, safety and health violations” to appropriate authorities was found to be too broad of a policy upon which to base a retaliatory discharge action.

Claims under the Illinois Whistleblower Act and those alleging retaliatory discharge should be vigorously defended.  Illinois stands for the general proposition that employees can be fired for whatever reason or no reason at all.  There are limited exceptions.  Given this, a Plaintiff’s burden in proving such claims is steep.

Originally published in the Spring 2013 edition of Quinn Quarterly.