Jury sides with Spokane nurse who was denied paid leave as a victim of domestic violence

click to enlarge Deaconess Hospital, which was formerly owned by Community Health Systems
Deaconess Hospital, which was formerly owned by Community Health Systems

In November 2014, Cheryl Hafer found herself back at her place of work at Deaconess Hospital. But she wasn't on the job. She was there being treated for injuries she sustained from an attack by her boyfriend, court records show.

Hafer told her supervisor she was a victim of domestic violence. She notified Deaconess security, seeking protection from her boyfriend while she was at work.

But months later, when she asked for time off in order to protect herself and her children, her request was denied and she soon lost her job.

Eventually, Hafer sued the hospital for denying the request and for unlawful termination. On Aug. 23, a Spokane jury sided with her, awarding her a $260,000 judgment. Of that amount, $160,000 is for back pay, and $100,000 is for the emotional distress Hafer suffered.

"We're grateful the jury saw it our way and gave [Hafer] an opportunity to regain some financial traction she lost as a result of this unlawful termination," says her attorney Patrick Kirby. "What Deaconess did to her ... really set her back financially and emotionally."

The lawsuit was filed against Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, which owned Deaconess until MultiCare Health System took it over in 2017.

According to court records, in April 2015, Hafer met with her supervisor to discuss what her supervisor called Hafer's "issues at home." The supervisor told her that "everybody has shit to deal with, yours is just a different form of shit from the next person," and expressed that she didn't want to hear about it again before asking if Hafer wanted time off. Hafer, fearing for her job, said no.

But weeks later Hafer did ask for a month off of work "to take actions to increase the safety of herself and her children from future domestic violence," records say. Unable to get paid time off because of domestic violence, she resorted to using vacation days. She returned to work before she wanted to, and she and another nurse made a mistake administering blood to a patient. Hafer says she was distracted because she was assaulted again the night before and was receiving calls from police throughout the day.

The other nurse did not face any discipline, but Hafer did. She was put on paid leave then, but the hospital did not allow her to come back to an equivalent position. She later took a job at Rockwood Clinic. She was terminated from that position in December, and in a separate lawsuit, Hafer alleged that Rockwood retaliated against her and she was wrongfully terminated. That case was settled earlier this year, but the terms are confidential, Kirby says.

Kirby says the entire experience devastated Hafer.

"It emotionally devastated her and it financially devastated her, because she lost her career working in a hospital as a nurse," Kirby says.

The jury ruled on Aug. 23 that Deaconess failed to restore Hafer to the position of employment she held when her leave commenced and failed to restore her to an equivalent position.

Kirby says the case should send a message to all employers that domestic violence victims are protected under the law and that they should make sure victims can maintain employment and keep financial independence necessary to exit an abusive relationship.

"It's unfortunate she had to go through this but this should send a message to all employers that they must comply with the law when it comes to accommodating domestic violence victims and restoring their jobs," Kirby says. 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.