Court

Fired whistleblower emergency physician Dr. Ming Lin, backed by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit Thursday against former employer PeaceHealth, one of its top administrators and a national medical staffing firm, seeking damages and reinstatement after his March dismissal from a Bellingham hospital.

Lin, 58, was fired from PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center after publicly protesting what he called  inadequate workplace measures to protect hospital personnel and patients from the COVID-19 disease. He became a global cause célèbre among health care workers who said they were threatened or intimidated by employers when they spoke out about safety issues during the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed in Whatcom County Superior Court, claims wrongful termination, breach of contract, discrimination, defamation and infliction of emotional stress. It also seeks unspecified damages and reinstatement of Lin to his post of more than 17 years.

The complaint names as defendants the hospital’s owner, Vancouver, Washington-based, not-for-profit PeaceHealth; Richard DeCarlo, a PeaceHealth executive who publicly accused Lin of lying about hospital procedures; and TeamHealth, the national medical firm which technically employed Lin under an emergency-department staffing contract.

PeaceHealth spokeswoman Bev Mayhew said Wednesday the company had not received the complaint, but reiterated that PeaceHealth asked TeamHealth to remove Lin “because he chose not to 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.”

The suit does not seek specific financial damages, but calls for reinstatement and compensation for lost wages and benefits as well as emotional damage from defamation. The suit also contends TeamHealth, a Tennessee-based company owned by private equity firm Blackstone Group, denied the fired physician due process required by his contract.

Lin said he chose the ACLU of Washington as a legal partner in the hope that the lawsuit will make a broader point about the free-speech rights of health care workers.

“This is more than just wrongful termination to me,” Lin said. “It’s more about health care workers’ right to speak up without termination or intimidation. It’s also more about hospitals trusting doctors to make sound medical decisions based on science.”

Lin said he has been contacted by hundreds of health care workers sharing similar concerns since his dismissal.

“My story is not unique,” he said.

Jamal Whitehead, an ACLU of Washington cooperating attorney in the suit, said the Seattle law firm he works for has received countless calls from workers in health care and other fields who are “just fearful, facing blowback from speaking out against their employers, and being afraid to do so.”

Lin, a respected 30-year emergency department veteran who treated some of the first patients after the 9/11 terror attacks, was removed from his job without explanation March 17, after publicly questioning COVID-19 infection safety measures at St. Joseph, where he had worked since 2002.

Lin had made multiple posts on his personal Facebook page, as well as comments to a reporter, charging the hospital was not properly screening visitors, was failing to provide sufficient protective equipment for staff, and was slow in authorizing virus testing for staff and patients. He declined to remove the posts when asked by supervisors.

“Importantly, neither PeaceHealth nor TeamHealth have social media policies prohibiting Dr. Lin’s use of Facebook,” the lawsuit states.

As many as a dozen safety measures urged by Lin ultimately were adopted at PeaceHealth — after his dismissal, Lin said Wednesday, adding he would welcome a return to his job at St. Joseph.

PeaceHealth officials initially distanced themselves from Lin’s removal, noting he was employed by TeamHealth. That company maintains it never fired Lin, but considers him an employee awaiting reassignment.

“Any claim that TeamHealth terminated Dr. Lin is simply false,” a TeamHealth spokesperson, informed of the suit, said in a statement Wednesday.

Lin said the only emergency department jobs offered by TeamHealth would require uprooting his Bellingham family. The suit argues the refusal to allow Lin to resume working at St. Joseph “effectively terminated” him from a longstanding job.

Facing growing community criticism over the firing, PeaceHealth in early April reversed course and acknowledged it had ordered Lin’s removal. In a lengthy interview on a YouTube video blog, PeaceHealth executive DeCarlo likened Lin’s public COVID statements to “yelling fire in a crowded theater,” and accused Lin of being “afraid” to go to work.

DeCarlo’s video comments, along with an April 3 letter sent from the hospital’s chief of staff to all customers, suggesting Lin was a lone voice of protest, forms the basis of the defamation charge in the ACLU lawsuit.

Numerous other physicians and hospital staff members, all asking not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, backed up Lin’s initial complaints in communications reviewed by The Seattle Times in March.

The complaint also states Lin was reluctant to more fully engage with supervisors about his COVID concerns because of a 2018 clash with hospital management, in which he reported concerns about a lack of racial and gender diversity at the hospital.

“His calls for change went ignored,” the suit states. “He feared that his concerns about St. Joseph’s coronavirus preparedness would also be brushed aside.”

Lin became an international symbol of employee resistance when the story of his firing spread globally, boosted by tweets from high-traffic influencers such as Jake Tapper and Edward Snowden. His firing drew immediate condemnations by a range of advocacy groups such as the 19,000-member Washington State Nurses Association and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.

Echoing those protests, attorney Whitehead accused PeaceHealth of breaching a public trust.

“By firing a doctor for pointing out its shortcomings, particularly at a time when every doctor is urgently needed, PeaceHealth prioritized its own reputation over the health and well-being of the communities it is supposed to serve,” he said in a statement.

As of Wednesday, Whatcom County had 382 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 33 deaths. State figures indicate at least 50 residents became patients at St. Joseph, Whatcom County’s only hospital. The hospital also has experienced a dozen positive COVID results among staff members, the suit alleges. PeaceHealth officials have declined repeated requests to discuss employee test results.

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