Ohio Court Dismisses Hospital Employees’ Claims For Violation Of Whistleblower Law, Wrongful Termination In Violation Of Public Policy, And Defamation

An Ohio Court of Appeals recently dismissed two hospital employees’ complaints against Selby General Hospital for violation of Ohio’s whistleblower statute, wrongful discharge, and defamation. Galyean v. Greenwell, 2007-Ohio-615, 2007 WL 453273 (Washington Cty. Jan. 29, 2007). Appellants Rhonda Galyean and Debra Cunningham held the positions of Credentials Coordinator and Vice President of Strategic Development for the hospital, respectively.

To be protected under Ohio’s whistleblower statute, an employee must “reasonably believe that the violation either is a criminal offense likely to cause an imminent risk of physical harm to persons or a hazard to public health or safety or is a felony.” In this case, the complaints alleged that Selby Hospital violated the law by permitting a physician, who was not credentialed by the Hospital, to perform surgery. Galyean and Cunningham further alleged that they were directed to backdate the physician’s credentials to cover the procedure. The Court, however, found their depositions to contradict the allegations in their complaints. The deposition testimony indicated that while the employees may have believed the conduct to be improper, they did not know whether the conduct was illegal. Further, their testimony clearly showed that they were not motivated by concerns for public health or safety, but rather, by concern for their own liability. Therefore, the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the claims under Ohio’s whistleblower statute on summary judgment.

The Court also examined Galyean’s claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. To succeed on her claim, Galyean had to prove that

(1) a clear public policy existed,

(2) her termination jeopardized the public policy,

(3) her termination was motivated by conduct related to the public policy, and

(4) there was no overriding legitimate business justification for termination.

Galyean cited a variety of statutes as a source of public policy to support her claim, including a federal statute which promoted peer review, the state whistleblower statute, and a state statute dealing with the insurance of medical professionals. The Court held that Galyean failed to prove the existence of an applicable clear public policy in any of these statutes. As such, this claim was also dismissed on summary judgment.

Finally, the Court dismissed the employees’ claims for defamation. Assuming the statements were defamatory, the Selby Hospital held a qualified privilege because the statements at issue were made in the employment context and were made to people with a common business interest.

Accordingly, Galyean and Cunningham had to prove actual malice to overcome the privilege, which they failed to do.