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This Bad Boss Fired a Manager Who Dared to Question His Workplace Canoodling

For Irene Riggs, caring for older people was a “calling.” She began working in nursing homes in 1990; in 2006 she was named as executive director of the Life Care Center in scenic Sandpoint, Idaho, a lakeside haven named by USA Today as America’s “most beautiful small town.”

Ms. Riggs had an exemplary run at Life Care until 2015, when, according to court documents, her married boss — Timothy Needles, a regional vice president — began to flirt with a nurse at Ms. Riggs’ facility.

At a staff costume party where the nurse had dressed as a cat, the pair acted intimately enough to make other staffers squirm, Ms. Riggs testified, and over a period of weeks they had “fondled each other in an office …, suggestively prowl[ed] at each other, … and otherwise made it obvious that they were in a relationship,” according to a court filing.

Ms. Riggs believed that supervisor/subordinate affairs were forbidden at Life Care and potentially illegal, she said in court — but even more than that, she fretted about the rancorous, sexually charged atmosphere that had descended on her facility. Staff members reported sighting the couple at local restaurants, she testified, and they complained that the nurse, Caren Bays, was getting favors in return.

Although she feared the encounter so much that her hands shook, Ms. Riggs confronted Mr. Needles on behalf of herself and her staff. Her boss became angry and denied the affair, Ms. Riggs said in court documents, and her subsequent complaints to human-resources officials went nowhere.

Not long afterward, according to a court filing, Ms. Bays accused Ms. Riggs of “abusing” a belligerent resident by unplugging his loud television — and Mr. Needles seized upon the incident to fire the executive director. After being dismissed for cause, a “crushed” Ms. Riggs was unable to find another job in elder care and ended up cleaning toilets.

Tim Needles is our new Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Riggs filed a lawsuit against Life Care Centers of America, Inc., which is based in Tennessee, claiming retaliation and wrongful termination. A federal jury in Spokane, Wash., awarded her more than $1.5 million in damages, including $500,000 for “loss of enjoyment of life”; subsequent judicial orders tacked on more than $500,000 for attorney fees, tax offsets, and other items.

Life Care has appealed the judgment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has yet to hear arguments on the matter.

As executive director of the 124-bed assisted living facility in Sandpoint, Ms. Riggs had watched over an extensive staff — and all of the older residents, whom she said at trial that she “loved.” She once drove a resident’s spouse four hours so that the couple wouldn’t have to spend Christmas apart.

Ms. Riggs’ working relationship with Mr. Needles also was “excellent” before their conflict, she testified, and Mr. Needles had given her positive reviews since becoming her boss in 2012. But after she challenged his behavior with Ms. Bays, she said in court, things changed.

By that time Mr. Needles already had shown favoritism toward Ms. Bays, according to testimony from Elizabeth Beddingfield, a former director of social services at Life Care. Specifically, she told the jury, Mr. Needles became angry and dismissive when Ms. Beddingfield lodged a harassment complaint that claimed Ms. Bays was a workplace bully.

“He jumped on me …,” she testified. “He just dismissed me and discredited what I had to say; said that I was wrong for filing [the complaint].”

Ms. Beddingfield quit shortly afterward.

Faced with complaints about the couple from Ms. Beddingfield and others — and a barrage of gossip, including a sighting of Mr. Needles and Ms. Bays at the Texas Roadhouse in Coeur d’Alene, an hour distant — Ms. Riggs decided to address the matter, she testified. After reviewing Life Care policy and praying, she called a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Needles, who at that time had been married for more than 25 years.

“I was very nervous …,” she said in court. “I showed him my [shaking] hands, and I said that my staff had brought me some concerns about his behavior [with] Caren Bays …. [T]hey were [being] flirtatious with each other to the point where it made the staff uncomfortable.”

Mr. Needles flatly denied any affair, according to Ms. Riggs’ testimony, and he also claimed he never went to Starbucks, where she told him Life Care staffers had reported another rendezvous. But when Ms. Riggs emptied her overflowing trash can later that day, she told jurors, she spotted a Starbucks receipt on top — with Mr. Needles’ name on it.

Feeling lied to, she reported Mr. Needles to corporate HR in Tennessee. Soon afterward, she testified, she got a call from Mr. Needles, who told her to stay away from Ms. Bays, and a call from the top HR person at Life Care warning that Ms. Riggs “should be very careful.”

“People’s lives are involved,” she said she was told. “You have to make sure that you are very sure about this.”

Ms. Riggs began to fear for her job. “It felt like they were protecting Tim Needles,” she told the court. And indeed, during an investigatory call with HR, Ms. Riggs was “berated” and reduced to tears for daring even to raise the matter, according to the testimony of an employee who witnessed the call.

The only result of her complaint, as far as Ms. Riggs knew: She was instructed to tell Ms. Bays to “be a positive member of the team,” and to get her to re-sign the corporate “Code of Conduct.” Mr. Needles was not disciplined, to her knowledge.

From that point onward, Ms. Riggs told the court, Ms. Bays began “watching me like a hawk” — standing by the executive director’s office door and “eavesdropping,” in the words of another witness.

A few weeks later, Ms. Riggs was called to the room of a resident who was paralyzed from the waist down. The man had a history of angry behavior, jurors heard, and on this day he had cranked his television so loud that it could be heard throughout the entire 24-bed wing. He was ignoring the nursing staff’s pleas to turn it down, and had hidden the remote.

Ms. Riggs tried to reason with the man, but got only profanities in return. Finally, telling him he was violating other patients’ rights, she unplugged the television set. She told him he could watch it again if he was willing to set it to a proper volume.

A few months prior, Ms. Riggs testified, she had asked Mr. Needles for permission to discharge this resident. Her boss had ruled against it, saying they needed more documentation of the man’s disruptive behavior. Now she renewed her request, based on the new incident, and Mr. Needles approved it, she said in court.

Ms. Riggs also sent a copy of the discharge notice to Life Care’s regional ombudsman, who acts as an advocate for patients. It raised no red flags. At trial the ombudsman said she discussed the unplugging with Ms. Riggs shortly after it happened, concluding that “it was the correct thing to do to defuse the situation.”

A couple of weeks after the TV showdown, however, Life Care received an anonymous complaint that painted Ms. Riggs’ actions far more darkly: Unplugging the television amounted to abuse, it claimed — a firing offense.

In a court document, Ms. Riggs says the complaint came from Ms. Bays.

Life Care took the complaint seriously — and Mr. Needles led the response, according to his own testimony. He promptly passed along the report to Idaho’s Bureau of Facility Standards (BFS), which regulates medical providers, adding two key elements: He described Ms. Riggs as “angry” and the TV unplugging as “a form of punishment.” Neither characterization, he agreed at trial, was in the original complaint, but together they bolstered the case for Ms. Riggs’ dismissal.

Just a few days later, Mr. Needles fired Ms. Riggs via a letter. “I was crushed,” she recalled in court. According to testimony, staffers at Life Center were instructed to tell patients that the popular Ms. Riggs had taken a new job.

In reality, Ms. Riggs had little hope of a new job. She wanted to stay in elder care, but she didn’t get callbacks after revealing the “official” reason she left Life Care — even though Mr. Needles never filed the official abuse report that would have deprived her of a license to work.

Eventually Ms. Riggs gave up on healthcare and began working for Maria’s, a local cleaning service. “They were the only ones who would actually give me a call,” she told jurors.

Later she qualified as an insurance agent, and began working on commission at a company that doesn’t offer benefits.

Mr. Needles, meanwhile, moved to Utah. According to his LinkedIn profile, he is “[w]orking with a wonderful group of professionals … Love it!”

» Read Ms. Riggs’ complaint

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Riggs v. Life Care Centers of America, 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. Riggs was represented by Skidmore & Fomina, PLLC.

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