Bellingham doctor sues hospital for wrongful termination

He had criticized PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center for lack of COVID-19 protections.

Dr. Ming Lin, an emergency room doctor at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. (Dr. Ming Lin via AP)

Dr. Ming Lin, an emergency room doctor at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. (Dr. Ming Lin via AP)

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

SEATTLE — An emergency room doctor who was fired after he publicly criticized the coronavirus preparations at his hospital in Bellingham is suing for wrongful termination.

Dr. Ming Lin worked at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham for 17 years before he was fired in late March. He had been criticizing the hospital’s leadership on his Facebook page and in media interviews, saying they had been slow to screen visitors for symptoms and to obtain protection equipment or take other precautions for staff.

PeaceHealth’s chief operating officer, Richard DeCarlo, said last month Lin had been removed from his position for creating a “toxic work environment.”

But amid the pandemic, the U.S. Labor Department has issued reminders to employers that it is illegal to retaliate against employees who report unsafe working conditions.

Lin’s attorneys with the Seattle firm of Schroeter Goldmark and Bender and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed the lawsuit Thursday in Whatcom County Superior Court in Bellingham. The complaint noted that neither PeaceHealth nor TeamHealth, the company that handles physician staffing at the hospital, had policies preventing his use of Facebook or speaking to reporters.

“Hopefully my actions will bring some publicity to the fact that health care workers for a long time have been repressed and they’re not allowed to speak up for safety because they fear termination and being reprimanded,” Lin said Thursday in a phone interview from a hospital on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he frequently works weeklong rotations.

PeaceHealth did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In an emailed statement, TeamHealth said Lin remains a paid contract physician. Both are named as defendants.

“TeamHealth values the hard work of our doctors, who are doing heroic work on the front lines of the pandemic,” the company said.

St. Joe’s adopted several of the recommendations Lin had made on his Facebook page, Lin noted, including finding a different lab that could provide quicker COVID-19 test results, providing scrubs for ER nurses and requiring face masks.

The lawsuit alleges that PeaceHealth offered Lin a chance to take a job at a hospital in Oregon or other, part-time positions at a lower pay within 50 miles (80.4 km) of his home in Bellingham.

“While we believe your actions and comments both inside and outside of work were intended to be constructive and a catalyst for change, unfortunately it is not possible for you to return to PeaceHealth,” TeamHealth official Dr. Robert Frantz wrote him, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit seeks Lin’s reinstatement at St. Joe’s as well as back pay, damages and legal fees.

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