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ACA Retaliation: A Ca$e in Point

Most EEOC retaliation charges are dismissed if the supporting evidence is flimsy.  So why should employers expect ACA retaliation charges to be more costly?  Here’s why:  Gallas v. The Medical Center of Aurora, DOL Administrative Review Board No. 15-076 (Slip Op. April 28, 2017).

Long story short, Ms. Gallas, a registered nurse, was fired from her job as a psychiatric evaluator.  She attributed her discharge to her refusal to perform those functions using telemedicine tools provided by her employer.  In her view, psychiatric evaluation, other than face-to-face, provided substandard care, in violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), state laws, and ethics rules.  Her employer carefully considered her contentions and rejected each one after investigation, but she persisted.  One day, Ms. Gallas refused to perform a remote evaluation.  Since no other evaluator was available, she was allowed to perform it face-to-face.  She was fired the next day.

The Administrative Law Judge assigned to her ACA claim dismissed it, since Ms. Gallas “failed to identify any specific provisions of the ACA which she reasonably believed the Respondent violated.”  That requirement seems to appear on the face of the statute, 29 U.S.C. § 218c(a), which reads, in relevant part:

No employer shall discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee … because the employee … has—

(1) […];

(2) […];

(3) […];

(4) […]; or

(5) objected to, or refused to participate in, any activity, policy, practice, or assigned task that the employee (or other such person) reasonably believed to be in violation of any provision of this title (or amendment), or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this title  (or amendment).

(Emphasis ours.)  However, under the former Administration, DOL adopted rules and issued decisions that relaxed that standard markedly.  So, according to the Board, a claimant need not allege any ACA violation.  She “need only allege activity or disclosures ‘related’ to ACA’s subject matter.”  Though HIPAA and EMTALA are separate laws, they address some of the same health care problems as the ACA, so employee objections to perceived HIPAA or EMTALA violations will substitute, for this purpose, for the ACA’s requirement that the employee objected to what she reasonably believed to be an ACA violation.

Effectively, this standard blocks dismissal of such ACA retaliation claims unless the employer can show that the employee’s objection was not reasonably related to any reasonably perceived violation of any federal or state law relating to health care or health care financing. If the EEOC took the same view of the anti-retaliation statutes it administers, employers would be required to prove that employee complaints bore no reasonable relationship to any federal or state law or rule requiring fair employment practices.  Whether intended or not, a principal consequence of this approach is to enhance the settlement value of even the flimsiest retaliation claims.