In what may be the first COVID-19 whistleblower action to be filed in the country, Lauri Mazurkiewicz sued her former employer, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, on March 23, 2020.  Ms. Mazurkiewicz, a nurse, filed her lawsuit in Illinois state court. She alleges that the hospital fired her after she raised concern over the masks being provided to its health care workers. Ms. Mazurkiewicz claims that the actions of the hospital and its management violated Illinois’s Whistleblower Act and also amounted to retaliatory discharge.

According to the complaint, at the time that the hospital began treating COVID-19 patients this month, the hospital “mandated that [its] staff and/or employees… wear facemasks that were not Particulate Respirator N95 facemasks.” Ms. Mazurkiewicz alleges that on March 18, she sent an email to others at the hospital “warning them that Particulate Respirator N95 masks were safer and more effective than the facemasks distributed and mandated by [the hospital].” Ms. Mazurkiewicz also alleges that she sent an email that day stating that she would be wearing an N95 mask to work. The next day, according to the complaint, Ms. Mazurkiewicz wore an N95 mask at work and the hospital terminated her employment.

Ms. Mazurkiewicz’s complaint also names her former supervisor and the hospital president as defendants. According to her, the hospital and these defendants terminated her because she had “attempted to disclose public corruption and/or wrongdoing.”

The suit seeks damages in excess of $50,000 for what she alleges to be “emotional and psychological damages, pain and suffering, and lost wages.” Although the state’s whistleblower statute enables discharged employees to seek reinstatement, Ms. Mazurkiewicz’s complaint appears to only seek money damages. Attorneys for the defendants have not yet filed any responses to the complaint.

Ms. Mazurkiewicz’s assertion of whistleblower protections exemplifies the type of legal issues that may confront employers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This alert is intended to provide general information for clients or interested individuals, and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Please consult an attorney for advice specific to your organization.

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