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When an Employee’s Son Got Sick, This Bad Boss Found Reasons to Fire the Mother

Maria Gonzalez’s motherly instinct went into overdrive when her 21-year-old son, Pedro Moreno, began suffering from a kidney condition that led to three years of surgical procedures, infections, complications, and about 30 hospital stays.

Drawing on her experience as a medical assistant at a pain clinic in San Diego, Ms. Gonzalez became a loud crusader for her disabled son’s proper treatment, which included drugs to fight the pain that Pedro often rated as “10” on a 10-point scale.

Ms. Gonzalez was in an unusual position: Her employer, a part of the Kaiser Permanente group, not only provided Pedro’s insurance — it provided his care, too, partly at Ms. Gonzalez’s clinic. And after Ms. Gonzalez started complaining about the quality of Kaiser’s care, she was targeted for retaliation by her supervisor Traci Trask, the clinic’s assistant director, according to a lawsuit.

Along with a senior doctor, Ms. Trask told Pedro that he couldn’t be treated at the clinic anymore, according to the suit. Then Ms. Trask decided that Ms. Gonzalez might be accessing Pedro’s health records improperly. A “sham” investigation followed, according to court filings, during which Ms. Trask wrote out statements for witnesses and put words in a doctor’s mouth. Ms. Gonzalez was fired based on the probe’s results.

Traci Trask is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Gonzalez filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination. Earlier this year a California state court jury found that Kaiser illegally fired Ms. Gonzalez to avoid the “nuisance” of her association with Pedro, awarding her almost $500,000 in damages. Kaiser has appealed the verdict.

Court records, including medical reports, reveal a complex situation in which Kaiser doctors and administrators were annoyed by Ms. Gonzalez’s repeated requests for medical attention for Pedro, whom the doctors suspected of being a “narcotic seeker” overstating his pain level.

The same people worked with Ms. Gonzalez professionally, and evidently had trouble with her dual role. As the only medical assistant in the clinic’s Pain Management Department, Ms. Gonzalez did for Pedro everything she did for other patients — she checked him in for appointments, took his vital signs, updated his records, tracked the status of medication refills, and so on.

But she was also his emergency contact and she had a durable power of attorney for his health care, according to her lawsuit. Pedro lived with Ms. Gonzalez and she accompanied him to Kaiser hospitals whenever his condition worsened. And during one of Pedro’s visits to the pain clinic, she even took a break so that she could attend the appointment in “mother” mode.

It was this appointment that triggered a reckoning. When Ms. Gonzalez spoke up as a mother to endorse Pedro’s ongoing complaints about Kaiser, she testified in a deposition, the doctor told them that he would no longer see Pedro because Ms. Gonzalez had a “conflict of interest.”

What did he mean, asked Ms. Gonzalez?

“Sooner or later we knew this was coming,” he replied, according to her complaint.

In addition to refusing to see Pedro, the clinic was hesitant to refer him for outside treatment, according to records. Pedro escalated the matter at a meeting with the clinic’s management, including Ms. Trask, but got nowhere. According to Ms. Gonzalez’s complaint, the clinic’s lead doctor told Pedro ominously, “You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your mother, would you?”

Something did happen to her. Within hours, Ms. Trask e-mailed Kaiser administrators to warn them that Pedro would “continue to be persistent” with his demands, according to court documents — and in another e-mail she drew attention to some “hearsay pieces of information” that she believed could justify an internal investigation of his mother.

Ms. Trask took charge of the investigation herself, focusing on the idea that Ms. Gonzalez had used her employee status to access Pedro’s medical records improperly. Ms. Trask suspended Ms. Gonzalez for the duration of the probe and added a “break the glass” notice to Pedro’s records, increasing security in a way that usually requires the patient’s permission — a step that Pedro never requested, according to Ms. Gonzalez’s complaint.

Based on Ms. Trask’s investigation, Kaiser claimed that Ms. Gonzalez had improperly accessed her disabled son’s medical record 16 times, according to court documents. Ms. Gonzalez agreed that she checked Pedro’s record on those occasions — but only based on requests from Pedro or his doctor, and therefore within her scope of duty, she said, which could have been documented easily if Ms. Trask had asked.

Another alleged misdeed: Ms. Trask reported that Ms. Gonzalez had conducted a “pill count” for Pedro’s unused medication, outside her proper duties. Again, Ms. Gonzalez agreed that she had counted pills on several occasions, including once for Pedro, but she testified that it was always explicitly requested by a doctor — and, in this case, had been documented fully by the doctor.

According to court filings, Ms. Trask bolstered her findings with a written statement in which a different doctor said that Ms. Gonzalez shouldn’t be counting pills — except that the statement wasn’t signed and Ms. Trask had never spoken with the doctor on the matter, according to a brief filed on behalf of Ms. Gonzalez.

In the meantime, Pedro’s kidney problems continued. On the evening of his meeting with Ms. Trask, Ms. Gonzalez arrived at home to find her son shivering, fevered, and in pain; she called an ambulance and Pedro was admitted to hospital with septicemia, a blood infection, according to court filings.

Subsequent hospital visits, as documented in court records, showed Ms. Gonzalez’s deep involvement in Pedro’s care while she was suspended from work — sometimes sleeping by his bedside — but also the increasing skepticism of Kaiser doctors.

“His mother is doing most of the talking and she says that she feels that [Pedro] is going to die from so much pain,” says one doctor’s report. “Ironically, she works in the Pain Clinic.”

The following month, while still suspended, Ms. Gonzalez was fired based on Ms. Trask’s findings. Three reasons were cited: Improperly accessing Pedro’s medical records, improperly conducting the pill count, and refusing to admit that her behavior was improper.

Ruling in favor of Ms. Gonzalez, the jury found instead that her association with her disabled son was “a substantial motivating reason” for the termination. It awarded her almost $200,000 for economic damage already done, plus a further $300,000 for damage yet to come. At the time of her firing, Ms. Gonzalez had been the longest-serving staffer in her department; she always received solid performance reviews an a doctor testified that she “really cared about the patients.”

Ms. Trask, meanwhile, left her job at the clinic. She works at a nearby dental practice.

» Read Ms. Gonzalez’s amended complaint
» See video of the opening statement at trial by Ms. Gonzalez’s attorney

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Gonzalez v. Southern California Permanente Medical Group, Inc.. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

During this case, Ms. Gonzalez was represented by Haeggquist & Eck, LLP and The deRubertis Law Firm, APC.

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