A former Women’s and Children’s Hospital nurse couldn’t convince a Boone County jury this week that age discrimination contributed to her May 2015 firing.
The jury deliberated for a little under an hour before reaching a verdict.
Cynthia Roberts, 64, filed the lawsuit against the Board of Curators of the University of Missouri and Christina Vollrath, the hospital’s director of nursing services, Matt Waterman, director of surgical services, and Pam Holliday, manager of surgical services.
Waterman fired Roberts on May 7, 2015, after an incident two days prior in which a patient’s mother claimed Roberts used the “f-bomb” and was “rude and disrespectful” toward another nurse. She had received 12 disciplinary reports in a three-year period as a result of arriving late at work, one missed call and complaints from nurses and patients about her poor behavior and attitude, according to testimony.
Roberts, who worked for the hospital since 1996, was 60 years old at the time of her termination, the oldest nurse in the post-anesthesia care unit. She was also at the top of the pay scale, making $76,000 per year with benefits.
On the stand Wednesday, she called the firing “seriously devastating.” She said she lost her benefits and had to withdraw from her retirement early, which resulted in a hefty penalty that forced her to lose a third of her retirement income.
“I don’t have any self-confidence,” Roberts said through tears in response to questions from her attorney, Mark Roberts. “I’ve contemplated suicide many times. I saw a psychologist for resolutions, but I couldn’t afford to keep seeing her.”
She estimated that she’d taken care of 14,000 to 15,000 patients in her years at the hospital and only had three to four patient complaints.
The majority of complaints came around the time Holliday was hired as the manager of surgical services who oversaw Roberts, according to her lawsuit and her testimony.
When Holliday first met Roberts in 2012, she inquired about her age. Upon hearing that Roberts had worked at the hospital since 1996, Holliday responded, “So you’re just getting your time in until retirement.” Roberts reported the complaint to Keri Simon, executive director of the hospital.
Holliday said she was surprised to hear that Roberts had complained about the remark.
“I was just getting to know my staff,” she said. “I didn’t know it’d offend her.”
Roberts also alleged that Holliday had said to two nurses in their 50s, “This is what happens when old nurses are in charge,” after a crash cart in the PACU was found to be inadequately supplied. Holliday’s comment came after a nurse said that “the old nurses” stocked the crash cart, referring to nurses who previously had worked in the unit.
Holliday also made remarks about retirement to Roberts and another nurse who was talking about her grandchild, according to testimony from Patricia Johanningmeier, another nurse.
Holliday testified that she did introduce a new nurse to her to staff as “young, energetic and tan.” But again she said she didn’t intend the comment to be ageist.
“I was excited because she was from Children’s Mercy (in Kansas City),” Holliday said in her testimony. “(She’d) bring us some new ideas from another children’s hospital.”
Holliday denied calling the nurse “beautiful.” However, she said she regretted saying the new nurse was young.
After Roberts was fired, Holliday and other management staff hired a nurse to replace her. The nurse had no prior PACU experience, and was younger than Roberts, though Holliday said the candidate was chosen because she was the best qualified.
Age discrimination in the unit was discussed at a meeting held in April 2015 to address complaints, according to testimony by several witnesses. Holliday was not present during the meeting.
Less than a month later, the incident that prompted Roberts’ firing occurred. A mother alleged she heard Roberts “barking and upset that she had to take care of tangled cords left by someone else” and “didn’t know the medical procedure her daughter had received.”
Kristen Connors Lynn, the nurse who was on the receiving end of Roberts’ alleged disrespect, testified Thursday that she felt “embarrassed to be talked down to.” Connors Lynn ultimately submitted a report on behalf of the patient’s mother who observed Roberts’ behavior.
Connors Lynn said she didn’t hear Roberts say the “f-bomb,” but, rather, Connors Lynn asked the mother at the time of the incident, “did she really just say the f-bomb?” The claim was never substantiated.
“I’ve never used derogatory language at the bedside, ever,” Roberts testified.
The report on the incident was sent to Holliday and Sara Guilford, Roberts’ supervisor. Holliday then shared the report with Waterman. Brenda Quinlan, the hospital’s employee relations manager, co-investigated the final incident with Waterman, and they decided Holliday would not be a part of the disciplinary action decision.
“We wanted to ensure that there was no perception of any bias,” Quinlan said in her testimony. “There were concerns that (Roberts) did not necessarily feel she was treated fairly. She was terminated not just due to the final incident, it was also a culmination of previous performance incidents.”
Quinlan said while reviewing Roberts’ case, she took into account previous evaluations that were conducted yearly on staff. The evaluations, from 2010 to 2014, rated Roberts as “successful” in her performance, and once called her “a great asset” and a “great resource.” However, Waterman testified he did not review the evaluations before making a judgment about Roberts’ employment status.
A formal complaint must be submitted to the State Board of Nursing within 15 days of termination to determine if further consequence is needed, according to the hospital’s policy. The state board can revoke a nurse’s license.
But Roberts didn’t lose her license. Mark Roberts, Roberts’ lawyer and brother, alleged that the hospital missed a deadline and backdated a report to the state board so Roberts — who was considering legal action against the hospital — might lose her license.
“Once they found out she would not leave quietly, they wanted to revoke her license,” Mark Roberts said.
Cynthia Roberts said the subsequent complaint to the board made her emotional state worse.
“I’d been an RN for 33 years, and I had worked hard for that license,” Roberts said. “And now they were trying to take that away too.”
Roberts declined to comment after the trial.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed