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New discrimination suit filed against PeaceHealth Riverbend

A nurse filed a lawsuit alleging age and disability discrimination, and claiming management suggested she was faking her injury
PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield. | COURTESY OF PEACEHEALTH
November 28, 2023

A registered nurse has filed a lawsuit accusing management at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend of pushing her from her job after she was repeatedly injured while working. 

Filed on behalf of Kelcie Santiago earlier this month in Lane County Circuit Court, the lawsuit accuses the Springfield-based hospital of retaliating against her for filing a workers’ compensation claim and discriminating against her because of her age. The hospital, owned by Vancouver, Wash.-based PeaceHealth, treated Santiago “harshly” and froze her out of lighter duties after undergoing three surgeries for work-related injuries between 2019 and 2022, the lawsuit states. 

“Despite multiple requests for modified duty …Santiago was stonewalled,” reads the lawsuit. “Santiago observed that other employees who were injured on the same unit that she worked were allowed to return to work in modified capacities. These employees were all younger than … Santiago.”

The lawsuit comes as PeaceHealth moves forward with its controversial plans to close its University District hospital in Eugene and shift employees to its RiverBend campus. The hospital system announced its plans in August, citing decreased use of the University District hospital and more capacity at RiverBend. Its leadership has stressed its commitment to its staff, but an Oregon Nurses Association spokesperson told The Lund Report that PeaceHealth nurses feel “burned.”

The lawsuit, filed by Portland attorney David Hannon, seeks $650,000 from PeaceHealth for alleged age and disability discrimination, wrongful discharge, intentional infliction of emotional distress, among others.

“PeaceHealth does not comment on pending litigation,” a PeaceHealth spokesperson told The Lund Report in an email. “We value all of our caregivers and the compassionate care they provide for our patients.” 

Santiago stands just over 5 feet tall and weighs 100 pounds, according to the suit. It said that Santiago, who is described as being over 50, intended to finish out her career at the Springfield-based hospital’s maternity unit where she worked as a registered nurse in 1996. 

But her relationship with her employer began fraying after she suffered a work injury in May 2019 that caused a left shoulder tear, according to the suit. 

Following the injury, Santiago began working in a modified position in July 2019 when she was suddenly pulled from the job in the middle of her shift, the lawsuit states. A human resources representative told Santiago that modified duty is “not for malingerers or people who might go to surgery. It’s for people who are getting better,” according to the lawsuit. 

Santiago was sent home and underwent surgery three months later, the lawsuit states. 

“After she was released back to work, (Santiago) had to fight hard to return to work,” reads the lawsuit. It claimed a human resources representative prevented Santiago from returning to work for another five months. 

The lawsuit also describes a second work-related injury Santiago had in November 2020 and what it describes as her employer’s negative response. She again tore her right shoulder while moving a patient and filed a workers’ compensation claim. She kept working because she was worried about how her employer would react, according to the lawsuit.

Around this time, she broke her jaw during an unrelated bicycling accident and had to have it wired shut. Her workers’ compensation claim was accepted while recovering from it, the lawsuit states. 

She underwent surgery for a torn right shoulder rotator cuff in April 2021, but hospital management refused to give her modified duty, according to the suit. 

By September 2021, Santiago was offered a modified position overseeing the intensive care unit’s personal protective equipment. According to the suit, Santiago completed two shifts before receiving an email from management telling her the National Guard would be doing her job as part of a state-led effort to relieve Oregon’s beleaguered hospitals.

Santiago kept in touch with hospital management expecting a new assignment until communication suddenly stopped in November 2021, according to the lawsuit. 

She underwent another right shoulder surgery in February 2022 from her work-related injury and was released to work in October. The surgery left her with a permanent disability in her right shoulder that left her unable to return to the maternity unit, according to the suit. 

There were other positions Santiago could have performed, the lawsuit states. But management  attempted to convince her to sign a document agreeing to “voluntarily resign” for $100 and give up her rights to sue, according to the lawsuit. Santiago refused.

Santiago contacted hospital human resources earlier this month after she was unable to access work emails. The representative told her she was no longer employed there as of Sept. 20, 2023, according to the suit, but that was the first Santiago heard of it.

The lawsuit contrasts Santiago’s treatment to how she was able to return to work after recovering from another left shoulder tear in 2012 and how another registered nurse was given light duty after breaking their finger. 

In August 2022, Santiago filed a civil rights complaint making similar allegations against the hospital to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Santiago’s complaint alleged that the hospital failed to re-employ her in suitable work after she became “medically stationary,” meaning her injury wasn’t expected to get better. 

A bureau investigator recommended dismissing the complaint a year later, observing that Santiago didn’t become medically stationary until two months after she filed the complaint with the bureau, according to records obtained by The Lund Report. 

“The evidence provided is (sic) does not substantially support Complainant allegations of discrimination on the basis of age or having a disability, or retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodations and invoking the workers’ compensation system,” the investigator wrote.  

The hospital didn’t have any suitable positions available after the National Guard took over her earlier job overseeing personal protective equipment, the investigator wrote. The settlement the hospital offered Santiago was not evidence of discrimination, the investigator concluded. The investigator was also unable to reach younger employees who received modified positions after suffering injuries. 

 You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via X @jakethomas2009.