MUSKEGON – A local nurse filed a lawsuit Friday, May 1 alleging that he was fired from Hackley Hospital in retaliation for publicly raising concerns about the safety of frontline health care workers and patients – a violation of the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act and the Michigan Public Health Code.

Justin Howe, RN, is supported in his lawsuit by the Michigan Nurses Association.

“It is a matter of basic public safety that nurses be able to raise the alarm when we have concerns,” said Jamie Brown, RN, a critical care nurse and the president of the Michigan Nurses Association. “We must protect our rights.”

“I am proud to have been an advocate and have no regrets,” said Howe. “Our patients cannot be kept safe if nurses are silenced.”

The lawsuit was filed in the Muskegon County Circuit Court and requests that Mercy Health Partners face a trial by jury. Trinity Health is the parent corporation of Mercy Health Partners.

Howe’s termination came on the evening of April 3, days after he had publicly raised safety concerns about PPE for frontline nurses and other issues. Thousands of healthcare workers across Michigan have fallen ill from COVID-19 and more than a dozen are suspected to have died of the disease.

Before his termination, Howe served as the president of the local affiliate of the Michigan Nurses Association, a position to which he was elected by his fellow nurses, and worked in the Intensive Care Unit at Hackley Hospital. Howe is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and has been a nurse for nearly seven years. He became engaged to his fiancée, a fellow union nurse at Hackley, earlier this year.

The hospital’s stated reason for Howe’s termination was a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Mercy Health Partners is alleging that Howe improperly looked at the health files of multiple patients individually. Even after repeated requests from the Michigan Nurses Association, the hospital still has not provided all requested documentation to support their claim.

It has been a month since Howe was terminated.

Howe is not the only Hackley nurse to be terminated for an alleged HIPAA violation. A member of the Michigan Nurses Association’s safety committee was also fired for the same stated reason. Like with Howe, the hospital still has not provided all of the requested documentation to support their claims.

This nurse was fired on April 7, approximately 72 hours after the Michigan Nurses Association filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging Howe’s termination was in retaliation. Since these two terminations, the hospital has publicly stated they are launching an investigation into additional HIPAA violations.

Before Howe raised concerns publicly, the Michigan Nurses Association has no record of an RN being terminated for a HIPAA violation at Hackley Hospital in the over three years back its records extend.

“This is insulting to RNs,” said Jen Parks, RN, a nurse at Hackley Hospital and the acting president of the affiliate of the Michigan Nurses Association there. “We are in the middle of a global pandemic without proper PPE. Instead of working collaboratively with us, it seems Trinity executives are investing their energy into trying to justify their unacceptable behavior and frighten nurses into silence.”

In addition to the whistleblower lawsuit that was filed Friday, a charge has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Mercy Health Partners violated federal labor law by firing Howe.

Normally, because union members have just cause protections, a case like this would be brought before a neutral third-party arbitrator who would make a ruling. Nurses say they are confident that if the case were to be brought before an arbitrator, both Hackley RNs would be reinstated.

Due to the pandemic, arbitrations are currently delayed and a quick resolution under the normal time frame is considerably unlikely.

Nurses have worn “No Retaliation” stickers to protest Howe’s termination. “We have to be able to speak out to protect our patients,” said Parks. “We will do whatever it takes to get justice.”