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Minnesota Nursing Board Drops Investigation of Fired Nurse

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Cliff Willmeng was under review after being fired for defying orders about hospital scrubs

The Minnesota Nursing Board has dropped its investigation of Cliff Willmeng, RN, the Minneapolis nurse and former union steward fired early in the pandemic for wearing hospital-issued scrubs instead of his own.

“Disciplinary action by the Board is not warranted in this matter,” according to a Board letter to Willmeng dated Feb. 24, which he shared with MedPage Today. “The Board encourages you, however, to review your role in the reported situation, including a nurse’s responsibility to conduct oneself in a professional and collegial manner.”

Willmeng’s licensure status will not be impacted by the investigation. But the Board reserves the right to reexamine the complaint that led to the review and Willmeng’s response, which he submitted in December, “should we receive additional information about this situation or a report of a similar nature in the future.”

“I’m glad the Minnesota Board of Nursing drew what I consider to be the correct conclusion,” said Willmeng, who was fired in May by Allina Health’s United Hospital of St. Paul, in an interview with MedPage Today.

Shirley Brekken, MS, RN, the Board’s executive director, declined to say why the Board dropped its review, citing the confidentiality of the process. Speaking generally, sometimes cases “don’t rise to the level of discipline,” she said, or the employer may take action that prompts the Board to dismiss a complaint.

While the Board protects the identity of reporters, Willmeng said he believes Allina filed the complaint against him, citing details in the November letter from the Board letting him know he was under investigation. In addition, hospitals in the state are required to report to the Board when they terminate nurses, said Brittany Livaccari, RN, an ED nurse and union steward at United.

Allina declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation between it and Willmeng.

The Board’s decision did not surprise Chris Wachtler, JD, a local attorney whom Willmeng hired to help him handle the review, as well as the pending union grievance and a lawsuit against Allina. The November letter raised questions less serious than others he has reviewed, said Wachtler, who often handles cases for the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) and individual nurses.

The review was carried out by Stephanie Cook, MSN, RN, a Board nursing practice specialist assigned by a supervisor to Willmeng’s case, Brekken confirmed. Cook worked for 24 years as an Allina director, as recently as 2018, MedPage Today found in December.

Livaccari and John Kauchick, RN, a retired 37-year nursing veteran who advocates for workplace rights, called Cook’s assignment a conflict of interest. “It was extremely concerning,” Willmeng said this week. “It doesn’t seem fair or impartial. … I’m glad the result at least at this point is what we wanted.”

Brekken told MedPage Today in December that she “might consider” removing Cook from the review given her connection to Allina. She confirmed this week that she did not. “Obviously you can see her name” on the new letter, she responded to a question about Cook’s involvement. But she noted Board members, not staff, make final decisions regarding whether to discipline nurses and to what extent.

“Their [invstgators’] role is to gather information that a Board of Nursing needs to make a decision,” she said when asked what role lead investigators play in reviews. “I have every confidence in the staff here at the Board, each one of them, to do their job objectively and fairly.”

Nurses, nursing advocates, and attorneys have told MedPage Today that state nursing Boards nationwide have long used reviews and the threat of them to intimidate nurses, with Boards and their staff heavily populated by former healthcare executives and few practicing nurses.

“This entire affair had an effect of further intimidation of myself and affected my family,” said Willmeng, a father of two children who is married to a fourth-grade teacher. “It’s very easy for hospital administrators to submit these types of complaints and for Boards of nursing to review them from afar. … These efforts are viewed as intimidation by a lot of nurses, including myself.”

Such “regulatory bodies” should not be overseen by administrators, he said, but by frontline workers who have much different perspectives. “I think we should be judged by our peers.”

But Wachtler noted he has “not had the experience with the Board where I felt any politics whatsoever came into play. They’re pretty straight up here [in Minnesota],” he said. “Apparently no politics or history came into play here [with Willmeng’s case].”

Still Undecided: Employment, Grievance, Lawsuit

While Board discipline is no longer a threat, Willmeng remains unemployed and the status of his union grievance and lawsuit remain unsettled.

Willmeng has applied for roughly three dozen nursing positions in the Twin Cities metro area, he said, but has not received one formal interview — only a single phone call from an employer expressing interest. This, in the midst of a pandemic that accelerated the preexisting nursing shortage, as hundreds of nurses are quitting, having to take leave, or being killed by COVID-19.

Fired nurses typically find new employment by the time they come to Wachtler to defend themselves against potential Board discipline, he said.

The difference for Willmeng: typical Board reviews remain confidential until their conclusion and, when the Board takes no discipline, are not shared publicly. But Willmeng has publicly shared details of his review and firing. “One would think” Willmeng’s continued unemployment has something to do with his public stance, Wachtler said. “Nurses land on their feet generally speaking,” he said.

But: “Cliff went into this with eyes wide open,” he added. “It’s going to be difficult when other potential employers see this.”

Regarding the union grievance, the parties spent 3 full days at the end of January before an arbitrator to discuss Willmeng’s charge that his firing was not for “just cause” because United’s uniform code policy violated standard nursing practices. The parties are submitting final written briefs now, Wachtler said, which are due by March 19. Wachtler expects the arbitrator to issue a decision within a month after that.

If Willmeng wins the case on all counts, Wachtler said United would be forced to reinstate Willmeng and provide him full back pay.

But if Willmeng loses, not only would he remain terminated from United, but he would likely have to give up three union positions because he would no longer be recognized as a working nurse. Those positions are executive Board members of the MNA, and delegate with the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and the state AFL-CIO. Willmeng can serve on the MNA Board currently as long as the arbitration is pending, he said.

The MNA declined to talk to MedPage Today, with a spokesperson saying they are not authorized to discuss Willmeng’s case.

Willmeng also sued Allina for whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination. That case remains on the docket for an August hearing, Wachtler confirmed. “I think he’s going to win his lawsuit or get it settled,” Wachtler said. United’s stated cause for firing Willmeng was violating hospital policies regarding uniform code and a respectful workplace, he said.

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