UC Irvine Medical Center has lost a more than $2 million disability discrimination lawsuit after a jury last week determined that a psychiatric nurse who was injured while protecting students from a violent patient was later wrongly fired.
An Orange County Superior Court jury ordered the medical center to pay Peter Albrecht about $1 million in economic damages for past and future lost wages and $1.15 million for emotional distress, court records show.
In reaching their verdict, the jury found that UCI leaders retaliated against Albrecht and ultimately fired him over his physical condition and related medical leave. Lawrance Bohm, one of a team of attorneys from the Bohm Law Group who represented Albrecht, said that rather than accommodate Albrecht’s medical condition, UCI leaders simply wanted to get rid of him.
“He was a light that was flickering, and as far as the university is concerned if someone is damaged get him out and replace him with someone else,” Bohm said.
A UCI Medical Center spokesman said the center is evaluating its options in light of the verdict, but declined to comment further. In written briefs filed with the court, attorneys for the medical center alleged that Albrecht had a history of poor attendance outside of his medical leave, and was at-times distracted at work due to personal issues.
“Unfortunately, Albrecht failed to consistently and promptly attend work, often times without notice and without excuse,” attorneys for the medical center wrote in a trial brief.
Albrecht’s attorneys in their own court filings described him as an “excellent, experienced nurse” who racked up positive evaluations and accolades after being hired to work at the medical center.
In 2007, his attorneys wrote, Albrecht while working in the neuropsychiatry department was seriously injured while protecting two female medical students from a 24-year-old patient who had psychosis induced by methamphetamine. He suffered a detached retina, a torn ACL that ultimately required a total knee replacement and the exacerbation of a chronic congenital back condition, according to court records.
Albrecht was eventually moved to the medical center’s adolescent partial hospital program, which provides care for teens and pre-teens with emotional and behavioral problems.
According to his attorney’s, Albrecht found himself in a toxic work environment due to a social worker in the program who accused him of being “old” and “slow” and falsely alleged he had made patient errors. The director of the program rebuked Albrecht over the “false allegations,” his attorneys wrote, and told the other employee to monitor and log Albrecht’s performance.
Albrecht filed paperwork under the Family Medical Leave Act that allowed him to take time off on an intermittent basis when his back pain flared up, according to court filings. His bosses accused him of “suspicious uses” of medical leave days, particularly around the holidays, and asked him if he was planning to retire, Albrecht’s attorneys wrote. He was fired in May 2013.
Albrecht, now 73, feels “tremendously vindicated” by the verdict and “ready to get his life back on track” by focusing on teaching other nurses, his attorney said.
“I want the medical organizations and centers to understand they cannot function without good, trained, experienced nurses,” Bohm said. “They can’t just get rid of them like flickering light bulbs when they get injured.”
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