How People Shouldn't Be Treated

MetroHealth officials get an expensive lesson in employee relations.

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The folks who run MetroHealth Medical Center do a lot of things well. The hospital's burn unit, neonatal-care department, and trauma center rank among the best in the field. A little more than a decade ago, Metro received the Foster G. McGaw Prize, a national honor given for extraordinary commitment to community service. As its ad campaign boasts, MetroHealth exemplifies "How People Should Be Treated."

Unfortunately, the proficiency with patients doesn't always extend to the hospital's dealings with employees. Last month, the Eighth District Court of Appeals ordered MetroHealth to pay $122,000 to a former supervising nurse who had sued for defamation. The reason: In 1999, after a run-in with her boss, Brigitte Kanjuka transferred out of her position in the hospital's Cancer Care Center. After she left, a Metro administrator spread the word that Kanjuka was mentally ill.

"It's a perfect example of really poor management, right up the line," says Kanjuka's attorney, Leonard Lybarger.

It's also exceedingly rare. Though employment-related cases make up one third of all defamation suits filed in the United States each year, employees seldom emerge victorious. "There's a pretty high hurdle for workers," Lybarger says.

Kanjuka would appear to be an unlikely adversary for MetroHealth. Hired as a registered nurse in 1991, the Cleveland native moved quickly up through the hospital's ranks. In 1995, she was named clinical coordinator for the Cancer Care Center. In 1997, she became the unit's practice coordinator, supervising staff nurses in the cancer and infectious-disease departments. Along the way, she developed a reputation as a talented and dedicated employee. During Kanjuka's trial, co-worker Barbara Ruda called her the "best boss I ever had in 25 years at MetroHealth." Nurse Diane Wolfe described her as "an almost perfect nurse."

During the spring of 1999, though, Kanjuka began having problems with a new supervisor. Operations Manager Nancy Haas felt Kanjuka was often disorganized. Kanjuka, in turn, felt Haas was abrasive. "She was more opinionated, always wanted to get her point across," Kanjuka said at trial. "She was always interrupting people."

The conflict came to a head in early August of that year. After noticing that there was a staffing shortage in the lobby of the Cancer Care Center, Haas confronted Kanjuka, yelling at her in front of several patients and co-workers. Fed up, Kanjuka complained to Haas's superiors, administrators Jeffrey Johnston and Dr. Susan Carter.

That's where the story gets murky. Both Johnston and Carter testified at Kanjuka's trial that she resigned voluntarily. Kanjuka, though, says Johnston suggested that she might not be cut out for management and told her to contact the hospital's human-resources department to inquire about other positions.

Either way, Kanjuka was out as practice coordinator (though she agreed to stay on the job another month). As the news circulated among the staff, Carter called two meetings -- one with the center's doctors, the second with staff -- to explain what had happened. "I had intended that an announcement about Ms. Brigitte Kanjuka's position occur in a more formal manner following a transition period," Carter explained in a staffwide e-mail, "but the discussions throughout the Clinic prompted this precipitous meeting."

It would seem a straightforward, if unpleasant, bureaucratic exercise: Kanjuka and Haas didn't get along. One of them had to go. Carter pulled the trigger.

But rather than clearing the air, Carter took a different tack. She told the doctors Kanjuka left because of psychological problems; she'd been depressed and was having trouble coming in to work. At trial, Dr. Mostofa Selim recalled Carter telling the doctors that "she had been trying to help [Kanjuka], and she was having some sort of psychiatric problems or depression."

Three days later, at the meeting with staff members, Carter repeated that same version of events. "[Carter told the staff] she had talked to [Kanjuka] about her depression, that her coming in late to work had to stop," Ruda testified at trial. (At trial, Carter couldn't recall the exact words she used at the meetings.)

The day after the meeting, two different staffers approached Kanjuka in the hospital to offer their condolences for her "troubles." That night several other co-workers called and told her what Carter had said. "I couldn't believe it," says Kanjuka. "I couldn't believe [Carter] would have the nerve to say that. The only reason I think she felt she had to say those things was to shut everybody up. Because she probably figured if she told everybody I was depressed, they wouldn't want to talk about it."

Kanjuka filed a defamation suit, alleging that Carter had slandered her at the two meetings. Lawyers for MetroHealth called the claim nonsense. In a bid to have the case thrown out, the hospital argued that Carter's statements were protected under Ohio law, because they dealt with Kanjuka's job status in meetings between a hospital administrator and her employees. In other words, it didn't matter whether what Carter had said was true; Kanjuka, they maintained, should not be permitted to sue.

Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold denied the defense motion, ruling that Carter's comments fell outside the bounds of normal boss-employee discussions. In May 2001, the case went to trial in the courtroom of a visiting judge, Robert Lawther, to whom Strickland Saffold had transferred the matter, citing a heavy schedule. After five days of testimony, a jury found for Kanjuka and awarded her $122,000 in damages.

The victory was fleeting. Attorneys for MetroHealth immediately filed a motion to have the verdict thrown out, arguing again that Carter's statements were protected under law and also that the jury's decision was a product of "passion or prejudice."

Siding with the hospital, Lawther tossed out the verdict and ordered a new trial. "The plaintiff has failed to prove any compensable injury resulting from alleged defamatory statements," the judge wrote in his opinion. "If Dr. Carter used the 'wrong' word in describing [Kanjuka's] emotional problems, that does not give rise to a cause of action or a huge verdict for monetary damages."

In July 2001, Kanjuka filed her own appeal. Last month, a three-member panel of appellate judges reinstated the jury's original verdict, ruling that the damages had been reasonable.

"The appeals court found that the trial judge was wrong in reversing the verdict completely, especially in regard to the damages," says Lybarger. "This was not some kind of runaway jury."

Brett Krantz, MetroHealth's attorney, did not return several phone calls, but Lybarger doubts that the appeals court's decision will be the last he sees of it. The case, he believes, may eventually find its way to the state Supreme Court.

Kanjuka, who now works full-time for a local nursing agency, is in no rush. Despite everything that's happened, she still misses working at MetroHealth. Three years on, just talking about the case can bring her to tears. "I am tired, my family is tired," she says. "I just want to move on. But for nurses today, they have to have a victory. I don't think there's anybody out there standing up for us."

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