The University of California, Irvine Medical Center has been ordered to pay nearly $2.2 million to a nurse who suffered permanent injuries on the job after California state court found that the hospital fired him in retaliation for taking medical leave.
A jury in Orange County Superior Court found that Peter Albrecht’s physical condition and his use of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act were “substantial motivating” reasons why UCI Medical Center disciplined him for his attendance and ultimately terminated him.
The jury awarded Albrecht $495,000 in damages for past lost earnings, $521,000 for future lost earnings, $650,000 for past emotional distress and $500,000 for future emotional distress. The jury also said an award of prejudgment interest would be appropriate for Albrecht's past economic loss.
Albrecht became permanently disabled in 2007 after trying to restrain a psychiatric patient with methamphetamine-induced psychosis. The injuries, which included a detached retina, a torn ligament in his leg and lower back damage, required more than two years of extended medical leave, which was approved by UCI.
After he returned full time to UCI in 2010, Albrecht said, he was assigned to the night shift on an adolescent mental health unit before being promoted to a lead nurse position in April 2011.
However, in early 2012, Albrecht said he began receiving warnings about substandard attendance, which surprised him because all his absences had been related to back pain stemming from his disability. Additionally, during staff meetings, Albrecht said colleagues would suggest he was absent-minded, slow and forgetful.
Albrecht applied for intermittent FMLA absences in August 2012, all of which were approved by UCI. However, his continued use of FMLA leave when his back pain flared up frustrated his supervisor and led to more warnings about his attendance, according to the suit.
In March 2013, UCI placed Albrecht on administrative leave after he was absent with bronchitis and pinkeye, with plans to terminate him at the beginning of April, Albrecht said. Though the nurses’ union and Albrecht tried to negotiate a proposal to allow him to transfer to another unit instead, Albrecht said, UCI decided to terminate him in May 2013.
Albrecht sued UCI in November 2013. Most of Albrecht's claims were dismissed on summary judgment, but the rest of the case, which included claims of harassment, went to trial in June 2016. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the medical center later that month.
An appeals panel in August 2018 affirmed some of the dismissals of Albrecht's claims as well as the jury's 2016 decision but revived his retaliation and FMLA claims against UCI Medical Center, which led to the trial that began April 8.
The attorney for Albrecht, Lawrance Bohm, told Law360 it's shocking that a university hospital system would treat nurses the way Albrecht was treated.
"All anybody can hope from a case like this is that the organization will pay better attention to what it does to its nursing employees," Bohm said. "They are the most important part of their medical center workforce. You can't do anything without the nurses."
Bohm said UCI's absence policy includes exceptions for when a nurse is sick or when the policy will result in unjust and unfair results, but the medical center "completely ignored that language."
"It was as if they were just determined to get Mr. Albrecht fired," he said. "There were multiple exclusions within the policy that could have applied to him. So is the problem the policy? No. The problem is the university's way of managing … its nursing workforce."