By Joe Vincoli
I had never been sued before and I didn’t expect to be sued this time. But there I was, sitting in my car talking to my wife (who works from a home office). She’s telling me that a certified letter came and that it’s from a local law firm. She recognizes the name of the firm because they’ve done legal work for the hospital where I used to work.
‘Do you want me to open it?’ she asks. “Sure”, I say, (having no idea but a sinking suspicion of what’s inside). “Oh, my gosh” she says. “They’re suing us.”
The suit, I learned later, alleged that I had violated the ‘confidentiality’ and ‘non-disparagement’ provisions of a wrongful termination settlement that I had reached with the hospital. What had I done to breach my agreement? In short, the Complaint stated that I had contacted the State and had alerted them to a contract issue that had resulted in the State paying my employer more for medical services rendered to State employees than the State’s contract had originally envisioned. In the end, the State Auditor determined that the overpayment was $1.4 million. The hospital stated in the Complaint that my having contacted the State was ‘unjustified, vindictive, malicious, and gratuitous’.
Prior to signing my wrongful termination settlement I specifically asked my attorney to put language in the agreement that would let me, in good faith, report this issue. He inserted language concerning ‘public policy’ and told me that would cover it. He was wrong. As it turned out, even with that language, the hospital was suing me. They filed the suit in January of 2011. My new lawyers tried repeatedly to negotiate some type of settlement but the hospital refused.
Then it occurred to me…’they’re not suing just me, they’re suing every mid-level health care manager, every nurse, every tech.’ That’s when I realized that I needed to set up a ‘Defense Fund’ and a website so that the issue would be public without me being the one publicizing it. My lawyer said I could even post the Complaint on the site. As he put it, ‘It’s their Complaint, what could they complain about?’ Shortly after their lawsuit against me made the front page of the local paper the hospital dropped the case.
Today, my State Senate passed a bill that makes any employment contract term that restricts an employee’s ability to report information to the State Health Plan related to fraud or overpayments unenforceable. It passed 43-0 and now goes to the House. In his excellent book, ‘Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power’, Dr. Fred Alford refers to the ‘choiceless choice’ that whistleblowers often face: “Do I do what’s right?”…or “Do I do what’s right for my family?”
Fortunately, it appears that in North Carolina, that citizens (other than State employees who are already protected) will no longer face the dilemma of trying to decide whether or not to sign a settlement agreement that has confidentiality or non-disparagement clauses when they know they have information that the State needs to know.
CEO Note: Congratulations to Joe for standing up against bullies and those who attempt to silence the brave people who speak truth to power. Changes in legislation don’t come easy. They need the active involvement of individuals who still believe that protecting those who protect the public is vital to our existence as a Democracy.
Too often we see politicians and lobbyists making back room deals to feather their own nests. I’m happy to say that the average Joe can and did change the playing field where the public was put first and foremost, side by side with their champions of justice, whistleblowers. My heartfelt thanks to all involved. Keep up the good work!
Link to State of North Carolina Bill in 7lhwk49