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Clear Public Policy Must Support Doctor’s Whistleblower Action

November 30, 2017 | Catherine Stevens

In Yerra v. Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Southern District of Missouri held that the trial court erred in giving the jury a whistleblower verdict-directing instruction, reversed the jury’s verdict for the whistleblowing doctor, and directed that the trial court enter a verdict in favor of the defendant employer.

Dr. Yerra, an internal medicine physician, treated a Medicare patient in her 60’s who had been hospitalized several times for heart issues and other conditions. After the patient was stabilized, Dr. Yerra referred the patient to Dr. Cavagnol for a gall bladder removal procedure. Dr. Cavagnol accepted the referral and asked a cardiologist to consult as to whether the patient could tolerate anesthesia and surgery.  Upon learning of the cardiac consult order, Dr. Yerra canceled it because she deemed it an unnecessary cost.  Dr. Cavagnol re-ordered the cardiac consult and the cardiologist cleared the patient for the procedure. 

Dr. Yerra complained to Mercy’s Medical Staff Services, stating that the cardiac consult was inappropriate, an unnecessary cost, and disrespectful to her.  She threatened to report the conduct to Medicare if it continued.  Mercy investigated the matter and determined that the consult was appropriate, within the standard of care, and not an unnecessary cost. 

Dr. Yerra, who had previously been put on “improvement plans,” was put on a new “improvement plan.”  However, following subsequent incidents, including one involving an ICU patient, Mercy terminated Dr. Yerra. 

Dr. Yerra brought a whistleblower suit against her former employer, citing R.S.Mo. 334.100 and 197.285, asserting that public policy considerations supported her wrongful termination claim.  While generally, an at-will employee may be discharged for any reason, Missouri law protects employees by a very narrowly-drawn public policy exception.  An employee may bring a whistleblower claim against his or her former employer if it is based on a public policy consideration specifically recognized in a statute, regulation, or rule.  Any vagueness is fatal to the at-will wrongful termination claim. 

R.S.Mo. 334.100 identifies a physician’s duty not to willfully and continually perform inappropriate or unnecessary treatment, diagnostic testing, and/or medical or surgical services.  R.S.Mo. 197.285 requires designated healthcare facilities to off protection to employees who report certain matters, such as facility mismanagement, fraudulent activity, or violations of applicable laws related to patient care. 

Although the trial court was skeptical that Dr. Yerra’s cited statutes were “nonspecific” and did not identify a clear public policy that was not vague or general, it agreed to give Dr. Yerra’s requested whistleblower verdict-directing instruction.  The jury returned a verdict for Dr. Yerra and Mercy appealed.

The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Southern District of Missouri was tasked with determining whether the statutes reflected a clear and specific public policy mandate.  Ultimately, it held that Dr. Yerra was not entitled to a whistleblower instruction for reporting what Dr. Cavagnol did because the record did not demonstrate that the pre-surgery cardiac consult violated any provision of the cited statutes and did not amount to serious misconduct contrary to well-established, clearly-mandated public policy reflected in the statutes.  The Court held that Dr. Yerra’s reasonable belief that Dr. Cavagnol’s conduct violated public policy was not relevant to her wrongful termination claim.  Rather, the whistleblower instruction is only proper when the former employee demonstrates that public policy actually forbade the conduct complained of.  

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About Employment Law Blog

The BSCR Employment Blog examines topics and developments of interest to employers, Human Resources professionals, and others with an interest in recent legal developments concerning the workplace. This blog will focus on Missouri and Kansas law, and on major developments under federal law, and at the EEOC and NLRB.  Learn more about the editor, David M. Eisenberg, and our Employment & Labor  practice.

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