A sex scandal at a Los Angeles health care facility has lead to a $1 Million jury verdict for wrongful termination. The case against a Los Angeles based health care facility, Prime Healthcare Services, Inc., demonstrates that supervisors’ preferential treatment of workers with whom they are having affairs can amount to a hostile work environment.
The plaintiff, Vilma Dinham, was laid off in 2012 from her position at Encino Hospital Medical Center, where she had served as the hospital’s chief nursing officer. She alleged that the layoff came in retaliation to her previous complaint about an affair between a hospital supervisor and the hospital’s chief medical officer. Prime Healthcare argued that the woman’s being laid off was due to her performing poorly on the job.
In 2011, Ms. Dinham complained to the hospital’s chief executive, Robert C. Bills, about an affair going on between the respiratory services director and the chief medical director, Dr. Muhammad Anwar. She had already complained to Dr. Anwar because the respiratory services director was telling coworkers she had the power to get them fired due to her affair. Nothing was done after Ms. Dinham’s complaint to Dr. Anwar, prompting her to then complain to Mr. Bills.
In response, Mr. Bills spoke with the respiratory services director, reportedly telling her to stop making the statements and to dress more appropriately for work. Mr. Bills also testified that Ms. Dinham was one of the top nursing officers with whom he had ever worked. After Mr. Bills spoke with the respiratory services director, he was confronted by Dr. Anwar for doing so, even though the two had positions on the same level. According to Mr. Bills, Dr. Anwar asked him to fire Ms. Dinham several times, but Mr. Bills refused.
Mr. Bills further testified that Dr. Anwar boasted of his close relationship to the company’s owner, Dr. Preddy, and made statements that if Mr. Bills wouldn’t fire Ms. Dinham, the company would fire him. Mr. Bills then complained to corporate executives and Dr. Reddy about the situation, requesting that both Dr. Anwar and the respiratory services director be confronted. Prime Healthcare did not discipline the respiratory services director, instead promoting her to a corporate executive position at the company’s headquarters in Ontario.
After promoting the respiratory services director, the company then fired Mr. Bills in June 2012, and laid off Ms. Dinham in Sept. 2012. Ms. Dinham earned a salary of $175,000 since starting at the hospital in June 2007. The jury returned its verdict in less than a day, basing it on not only her lost income but also the emotional stress she had experienced as a result. Mr. Bills did not file a lawsuit.
The Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, prohibits workplace sexual harassment at Gov. Code § 12940, subdivision (j)(1). In a 2005 case decided by the Supreme Court of California, Miller v. Dept. of Corrections, the court held that workplace sexual harassment included the preferential treatment of certain employees over others due to their sexual affairs with their supervisors.
In that case, like in this one, women who had affairs with the warden were promoted, while the plaintiffs were retaliated against and discriminated against after filing complaints with the Department of Corrections about the affairs and preferential treatment. Similarly, in this case, the nursing officer was terminated after she and Mr. Bills complained, while the respiratory services director was promoted instead of being disciplined for her problematic behavior in the workplace.
Importance of Seeking Legal Advice If You Are Being Subjected to a Hostile Work Environment
Both statutory and case law in California clearly prohibit the type of situation that occurred in this case. Other workers should not be treated poorly because they complain about affairs occurring between supervisors and subordinates. When a person is given preferential treatment due to their having an affair, the court has held that that constitutes a hostile work environment for others, opening the employer to legal liability for discrimination. When a worker has experienced a situation that is similar, they should contact a California employment lawyer for help.