Ingham Regional Medical Center loses appeal over wrongful termination
Mary Ann Bull-Ehinger was a long-term, experienced social worker who served as the mandatory dedicated social worker in the Oncology Ward. She was twenty years older than her companions in the Department, and her annual reviews substantiated that she was perhaps the most valuable employee in the Department. She received the highest grades for teamwork and her performance ratings were exceptional. She also had a history of valuable teaching and mentoring.
Nevertheless, when a new administrator, Dr. Michael Perry, took over the management of the hospital's social workers, he immediately eliminated her senior position and assigned her work outside the Oncology ward. Although Bull-Ehinger took these moves in stride, and even though the other social workers suggested that Bull-Ehinger's work load was now inappropriate, Perry apparently twisted a single incident into "cause" to terminate Bull-Ehinger's employment. He justified the measure by claiming a need for fewer social workers and more case managers, however, within months he replaced Bull-Ehinger with a transferred social worker.The social worker sued for age discrimination and wrongful termination. When the jury heard the full story, it awarded her a verdict for $900,000.00, including $750,000.00 in mental anguish damages. Ingham appealed, arguing that the verdict wasn't supported by law.
The Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the verdict. It pointed out that Bull-Ehinger had established a prima facie case of discrimination, and that there was ample circumstantial evidence to allow the inference that Perry's purported justification for the firing was "pretextual" and not credible. It also pointed to her summary firing after a long history of professional performance, and the fact that she had to take a part-time prison job after her termination, as ample foundation for her claim of emotional injury.