Fired employee: WMC violated family leave act

Posted: August 17, 2013

The Winchester Star

HARRISONBURG — A Stephens City woman is suing Winchester Medical Center and Valley Health for allegedly discriminating against her and verbally abusing her before unlawfully terminating her employment.

According to a lawsuit filed on Friday in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg, Christy B. Downs — a former executive secretary at the hospital — states that the alleged wrongdoings were violations of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The suit states that Downs was employed by the hospital from Sept. 24, 1994, through Aug. 19, 2011.

“There were no negative performance issues of note occurring during the course of her 16-year employment under her supervisor, Frank Heisey,” the suit states. “During this time, Downs received promotions and favorable performance evaluations.”

Heisey was replaced by Dena Kent in 2009, and Downs began reporting directly to her, according to the suit. Her troubles, the suit states, began after the switch.

Valley Health officials said on Friday that they are prepared to defend the lawsuit and that they are committed to compliance with FMLA regulations.

“We honor the service of Dena Kent, who retired from Valley Health earlier this year,” said Carol Weare, public relations manager. “We regret when employees leave feeling dissatisfied with their tenure here.”

During the course of her employment, Downs used FMLA leave intermittently due to health issues, including migraine headaches, hypertension, anxiety and depression.

She started using the leave more frequently after her father died in 2010, according to the suit.

“Upon returning from FMLA leave, Downs was routinely singled out and verbally abused by Ms. Kent, often in the presence of others, for her absences,” the suit states. “Examples of the continuing commentary from Ms. Kent included statements such as: ‘Well, if you were ever here ...,’ and ‘I guess I have to be my own secretary because you are never here,’ and ‘It was emailed to you, but you weren’t here, so I guess you didn’t get it.’”

Downs states that Kent treated her differently, in terms of benefits and conditions of employment, from her coworkers. “After complaining of harsh treatment by Ms. Kent to the Vice President of Human Resources, and Employee Relations Manager, Ms. Downs was told that Ms. Kent has a ‘strong personality,’ and that she would have to ‘learn to get along with her.’”

When she applied for other positions, none was available to her, according to the suit.

Kent also allegedly began to give Downs negative performance appraisals and began a process of discipline against her “in an apparent attempt to prepare to terminate” her.

On Aug. 18, 2011, Downs was “berated” by Kent for failing to complete a task, the suit states.

Downs said she had been unaware of the task, and Kent said she sent an email about it, then left for a scheduled meeting, the suit states.

While in the meeting, Downs gained access to Kent’s work-related email account to retrieve the email in question and informed Kent that she would complete the task by the following morning, according to the suit.

The next day, Kent allegedly accused Downs of unauthorized email account access, which Downs denied and reminded Kent of the joint access she had been given by Kent more than two years before.

“Ms. Kent refused to acknowledge that she had authorized the access, and suspended Ms. Downs pending further investigation,” the suit states.

In fear of being fired, Downs tendered a notice of resignation after being suspended, giving a 10-day notice.

On Aug. 23, Downs’s notice of resignation was not accepted and she was given a notice of termination from the vice president of human resources, according to the suit.

The notice of involuntary termination stated that it was for the unauthorized access and use of Kent’s email account. It also alluded to possible criminal conduct in the form of computer trespass.

“Downs’[s] use and access to Ms. Kent’s work email account had been specifically and intentionally authorized by Ms. Kent at the beginning of their direct report relationship,” the suit states. “Furthermore, as a matter of daily routine, Downs accessed the work email account as part of her regularly assigned duties, and such use and access was authorized and known to Ms. Kent.”

Downs said the reason for her termination was a false accusation and served as a pretext for Kent’s “willful and intentional discriminatory acts taken in violation of the FMLA.”

She is seeking a jury trial in the matter and an award of damages for lost wages and benefits of employment, both past and into the future, and reinstatement of her employment or “front-pay” in lieu thereof.

— Contact Melissa Boughton at mboughton@winchesterstar.com