Ann Wayt, a 38-year veteran registered nurse with a “spotless record” who was illegally fired and then defamed in retaliation for her outspoken patient advocacy and support for her union, was awarded more than $2 million in damages in a defamation suit against the hospital—one of the most notorious anti-union hospital chains in the country, according to the National Nurses United (NNU).
The unanimous verdict against Affinity Medical Center of Massillon, Ohio—which after firing Wayt also sought to have her nursing license revoked—took the eight-person civil jury less than two hours of deliberation after nearly two weeks of testimony. Affinity is operated by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems chain.
While the verdict was a major victory for Wayt and the Affinity nurses, it also shows the need to strengthen and reform labor laws because workers continue to be fired and retaliated against for speaking out for their right to join a union.
Wayt was fired in 2012, shortly after Affinity nurses voted to join National Nurses Organizing Committee-Ohio (NNOC-Ohio), a state affiliate of NNU.
The Massillon Independent reported that Wayt’s attorney, Brian Zimmerman, told jurors that the hospital’s actions were meant to send a message to union supporters and damaged Wayt’s reputation in the industry. He said she had continuously received glowing evaluations, provided outstanding patient care and won nursing excellence awards before her sudden suspension and termination.
NNOC/NNU Co-President Malinda Markowitz, RN, praised Wayt for “standing up for herself, her family and her colleagues against the harassment and attacks by a multibillion[-dollar] corporation on their right to form a union.”
This verdict is a clear signal that working people can resist, fight back and win against even the most heavily funded attacks by those like the Koch brothers and other far right groups and their agenda to eliminate unions, laws that protect workers and public advocates for public safety and economic and workplace justice.
Wayt said she fought back not just for herself, but:
for Affinity nurses and nurses everywhere who are fighting for their right to stand up for patients. Now they see that nurses are strong and we stick together. We aren't going to accept their bullying. I am so very thankful for all of the support of my colleagues through this very trying time. We stuck together and we prevailed.
The decision came more than two years after Wayt was fired, and a year after U.S. District Judge John Adam delivered a sweeping cease and desist injunction ordering Affinity to reinstate Wayt and end a broad array of behavior in illegal discipline and harassment of its RNs, as well as refusing to bargain with its RNs and their union. See the video below of Wayt’s return to work last year.
Wayt, a prominent union supporter in the hospital’s orthopedics unit, where union support was “particularly strong,” as a National Labor Relations Board Judge Arthur Amchan later noted, was directly targeted, as symbolized by the decision of the hospital to begin an investigation against her on the very day of the election.
Affinity management then trumped up charges of patient care misconduct that Amchan termed in July 2013, “a pretext to retaliate against her for her union activity” despite a long “spotless” record as an RN. Affinity not only fired Wayt, it then went to the Ohio Board of Nursing attempting to pressure it to revoke Wayt’s nursing license.
Amchan also wrote, “[I]t is hard to imagine a more effective coercive message to the union supporters…than the termination of a long-term employee with no (or no known) prior disciplinary record.”
After the Feb. 6 verdict, Affinity RN Debbie McKinney said:
Ann has shown that one nurse can hold a healthcare system accountable for its lies and deceptions. This should empower all nurses to stick together for what is best for our patients, ourselves and our profession.