Northern Light Health Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of an Ellsworth hospital employee who was fired for writing a letter to a weekly newspaper about a labor dispute at the hospital.

In its decision issued Wednesday, the federal First Circuit appeals court upheld a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that the Ellsworth hospital, now known as Northern Light Health Maine Coast Hospital, violated federal labor laws when it fired Karen Jo Young for writing a letter to the editor at the Ellsworth American in support of nurses and physicians at the hospital.

Young’s letter criticized hospital leadership after, in the wake of being acquired by Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (now known as Northern Light Health), it “canceled the contracts of most physicians at the hospital” and nurses grew concerned about understaffing among their ranks, according to the court decision.

Young, an activities coordinator in the hospital’s rehabilitation department, submitted a letter to the newspaper in 2017 after she heard conversations involving nurses and physicians about their working conditions, and witnessed a protest in which nurses placed a sticky note on each of the empty lockers of every nurse who had left their job at the hospital and not been replaced.

When Young submitted her letter to the newspaper, the hospital had a policy that barred its employees from contacting or releasing information to news media without the direct involvement of the hospital’s community relations department or its chief operating officer, according to court documents.

“Just hours after Young’s letter was published, [the hospital] terminated her employment, citing the media policy,” the panel of three judges wrote in the court’s decision. “Prior to Young’s discharge, no employee had ever been disciplined for violating EMHS’s media policy.”

After firing Young, the hospital later revised the policy to add a clause saying that the ban against communicating with news organizations did not apply to communications about labor disputes or other communications protected by the National Labor Relations Act, according to the appeals court decision.

The National Labor Relations Board later determined that the hospital had violated the federal law by firing Young and by having a policy — which it later changed — that barred staff from contacting the media about labor disputes or other related issues protected by the act.

The appeals court also upheld the board’s order requiring the hospital to reinstate Young to her job and to award her back pay.

Portland lawyer Chad Hansen, who is representing Young in a separate civil lawsuit filed against the hospital in federal court in Bangor, said Thursday that Young has yet to be reinstated to her former job at the hospital.

In her civil case, Young alleges her civil rights were violated and that her firing was in retaliation for having earlier filed complaints against the hospital with the Maine Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — each of which later determined that Young had a right to sue her employer.

Hansen said he has not been involved in the appeals court review of the NLRB decision.

“I am very happy to hear about the First Circuit’s decision which is good news for Karen Jo and for all employees since it reaffirms employees’ rights to engage in concerted, protected and union activity,” Hansen said.

Suzanne Spruce, a spokesperson for Northern Light Health, said that the hospital will abide by the court’s decision but is “disappointed” with the decision.

“In our view, if the law provides an absolute shield to a subordinate employee who, with no basis in fact, publicly accuses her organization’s senior leadership, as well as certain of its board members, of dereliction of duty, then the law has gone too far and needs to be changed,” Spruce said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....