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Court of Appeals Protects Health Care Whistleblowers in Recent Decision

On May 13, 2010, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision in Lark v. Montgomery Hospice, Inc., a case in which the Public Justice Center (PJC) filed a friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief on behalf of itself, the United Seniors of Maryland, Voices for Quality Care, the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and the Maryland Nurses Coalition. The case involved a lawsuit under the Health Care Worker Whistleblower Protection Act (HCWWPA) by a registered nurse, Susan Lark, who was fired shortly after she complained to her immediate supervisors and corporate managers about unethical and illegal practices at the hospice where she worked. Ms. Lark lost in the circuit court, which ruled that she could not claim the protection of the HCWWPA because she had not reported the alleged violations to an external oversight organization like the Board of Nursing. On appeal, Ms. Lark argued that the HCWWPA did cover “internal whistleblowers” like herself, and the PJC offered a detailed analysis of the text, history, and public policy purposes of the statute in support of this position. 

In its unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals adopted the interpretation of the HCWWPA advanced by Ms. Lark and the PJC and other amici curiae. It held that the Act protects not only employees who report wrongdoing to an external board but also “internal whistleblowers” who first give their employers an opportunity to address problems by reporting wrongdoing to internal supervisors. Following this decision, healthcare workers will be able to do so without fear of reprisal by their employers.  Employers will also be prevented from denying employees the protection of the law by moving swiftly to retaliate against internal whistleblowers before they have a chance or need to make an external report.

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