Hospital employee fired for mishandling narcotics, not age or sex, 1st Cir. finds
- A lower court properly concluded that a hospital employee was fired due to irregularities in his handling of prescription narcotics rather than discrimination on the basis of age or gender, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held (Kuznarowis v. Tobey Hospital, No. 18-1662 (1st Cir., Jan. 22, 2019)).
- When confronted with the results of an investigation revealing substandard medication administration and documentation practices, Lee Kuznarowis could neither explain the deviations from best practices nor account for missing controlled substances, according to court documents. The employer fired him and he sued, alleging discrimination.
- A district court granted summary judgment for the employer, and Kuznarowis appealed. On appeal, the 1st Cir. said because the record contained extensive support for the hospital's legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating the plaintiff — including a detailed, legally required report submitted to the state's board of registration in nursing — and because the employee presented no evidence that the circumstances of his firing were discriminatory, it would not reverse the lower court's ruling.
The district court's opinion in this case provides additional background, including the plaintiff's allegations that it would not have been possible for the nursing supervisor to have reviewed the large volume of documentation she claimed to have examined, and that the hospital's statements were inconsistent.
Notably, the district court said the "relevant inquiry" was not the accuracy of the hospital's account of events, but rather its explanation of its conduct: Could a jury reasonably conclude that the evidence was not only false but also suggestive of discrimination? The district court said it was irrelevant whether the plaintiff actually diverted drugs because the employer's reasonable suspicion was sufficient to justify termination.
This is good news for employers — courts neither expect nor demand perfection from employers, only reasonableness: "The Hospital's decision to terminate Kuznarowis because of irregularities in his narcotics management is a sufficient legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. Plaintiff has failed to rebut it," the district court said. Additionally, it was noteworthy that the employer didn't rush to judgment in terminating the employee; the hospital met with him on four separate occasions to discuss the results of the investigation.
It also should be noted that the plaintiff's claims of bias were particularly weak in this case. For example, he claimed he was improperly fired on the basis of age and sex, yet the employee hired by the hospital to replace him was the same gender and five years older than the plaintiff.
This case illustrates just how critical it is for employers to ensure investigations into misconduct are carried out thoroughly and applied to everyone evenly. As this case displays, well-documented, fair investigations can hold up in court.