FORT LAUDERDALE — The former compliance director at Broward Health claims he was fired after two months on the job because he reported alleged illegal activities being performed by hospital employees, calling them “flagrant and continuous violations."
In a letter from his lawyer to the hospital, Mike Pelaez claimed that he reported the actions to several officials in the public hospital system, including president and CEO Nabil El Sanadi, who “was supportive and commended Pelaez for his ongoing efforts to investigate and report the illegal activities to him and agreed to protect him from retaliation from those who were engaging in the above wrongful conduct,” according to the Sun-Sentinel.
Pelaez alleges that he was fired in December in retaliation for reporting the activities, citing the Florida Whistleblower Act.
Broward Health has said it will hire outside counsel to investigate the claim.
The letter withheld details of alleged activities. It claims, "These flagrant and continuous violations pose a substantial danger to public health and are a direct result of the serious mismanagement and malfeasance by Broward Health's upper management and its employees,” according to the Sun-Sentinel.
The letter from Pelaez adds to the slew of accusations centering on Broward Health, which is under state and federal investigations, according to the Sun-Sentinel. The hospital system also experienced the recent suicide of El Sanadi.
To be protected as a whistleblower in court, Pelaez would have to prove that he fits within the parameters of Florida’s law and demonstrate that any alternative explanation for his termination isn’t true, Michael Masinter, a professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law, told the Florida Record.
An employer has the opportunity to provide a “non-retaliatory reason” that the employee was fired, such as job performance or other improper behavior.
Those alternative reasons can be difficult to disprove and can lead to summary judgments, which employers often rely on to defeat a retaliation claim, Masinter said. Because he is not familiar with the details of the case, Masinter spoke generally, calling on his expertise in First Amendment law and employment discrimination.
“They [plaintiffs] almost always have to rely on circumstantial evidence because it’s the rare employer who’s stupid enough to write down, ‘I’m firing this guy because this complaint was made,’” Masinter said. "You look for facts that are inconsistent with the explanation."
He said a recent case, also against Broward Health, shows that the courts can be receptive to legal protection for whistleblowers. The decision in Rustowicz v. North Broward Hospital District, made by the Fourth District Court of Appeals in July, broadened the interpretation of a provision of the state’s whistleblower law, allowing it to go to trial.
“It’s a helpful from an employee’s perspective,” Masinter said. “I think they’re important cases. Public employees who come forward ... .certainly should be protected from retaliation. It’s important. They provide a public service when they reveal misconduct. This is more than just a private dispute between an employer and an employee — it involves ... an entity that was created by the county government, and we ought to hold them to a high standard.”