By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The former nursing director at Bay Clinic has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, claiming she was fired because of her gender and marital status, and accusing the nonprofit health care organization of “defamation” and “negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
Amanda Opoku-Boachie filed the lawsuit on her own behalf on June 22 in Hilo Circuit Court, alleging that she was fired on March 21, 2011, for expressing, or extracting breast milk in the workplace to later feed to her then 5-month-old baby.
In the suit, she accused the clinic of “failure to accommodate my need to express breastmilk.” She is seeking unspecified damages “as the court deems reasonable up to 2 million dollars.” She stated in the document that her salary at Bay Clinic was $75,000 a year.
“I have not worked since they fired me unjustly,” Opoku-Boachie, who now lives on Maui, said earlier this month. A 38-year-old single mother of four, Opoku-Boachie said she has “constantly” sought work, but so far has been unsuccessful, and is unable to afford a lawyer.
“This is a human rights issue,” she said. “Maybe some women’s rights groups will come and assist me.”
Opoku-Boachie had previously filed a complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission which alleged discrimination due to sex, race, age and lactation, which according to a Jan. 25 letter from investigator Kendell Kuehn, was closed due to “insufficient evidence to show a causal connection between the adverse action and your protected categories.”
In the commission complaint Opoku-Boachie wrote that she “had to hide in closets to breast pump so they didn’t find out that I had a baby.”
The lawsuit also states that Opoku-Boachie “had an exemplary standing in the professional community of nursing” and that her “reputation and standing was substantially and negatively impacted by the Bay Clinic’s arbitrary and capricious decision to terminate me.”
Tanya Aynessazian, chairwoman of Bay Clinic’s Board of Directors, told the Tribune-Herald she had not been served with the suit.
“We don’t believe that the lawsuit has any merit, I can tell you that,” Aynessazian said. “… We’re definitely not going to let it distract from the goals and previous accomplishments that we have.”
Opoku-Boachie’s lawsuit is the second wrongful termination suit filed against Bay Clinic within a month. On June 6, Dr. Fatima C. Phillips, the clinic’s former medical director, also filed a civil action against Bay Clinic, alleging that she was stripped of her authority and forced to resign after reporting the over-prescribing of narcotic painkillers by clinic physicians. Phillips also claims in her suit that she told the clinic’s then-human resources director, who allegedly fired Opoku-Boachie while Phillips was on the mainland for a medical convention, that Opoku-Boachie’s termination was gender discrimination and that it violated a state law that allows a nursing mother to express breast milk in the workplace as long as it’s done in private and during a break.
Opoku-Boachie said the HR director told her that she was being terminated for “unprofessional behavior” and “not fitting the mission and values statement” of the clinic.
“I asked her to explain it and she would not give me any reason, whatsoever,” Opoku-Boachie said. “I was never reprimanded for anything. Quite the opposite. I was told what a glowing job I was doing.”
Opoku-Boachie said that while she was not explicitly told that expressing breast milk was the reason for her firing, she said comments were made by then-Bay Clinic CEO Paul Strauss and the HR director expressing concern about the ability of a single mother with a 3-year-old child and a 5-month-old baby to give the nursing director’s job the required attention.
“I had child care,” she said. “My 18-year-old son came over and watched my two youngest children.”
Neither Opoku-Boachie’s nor Phillips’ lawsuits name the HR director, but Bay Clinic’s website indicates the organization is currently seeking applicants for the position.
Opoku-Boachie had been on the job less than a month when she was fired. Court documents indicate she was hired on Feb. 23, 2011, and the alleged discrimination started on Feb. 28.
“The professional humiliation of being terminated a month after being hired … is real and nearly unbearable,” she wrote in her filing.
A media release dated March 9, 2011, about Opoku-Boachie’s hiring by Bay Clinic touted her “11 years of patient-focused experience and a proven track record of strong leadership skills” and called her “a welcome addition to the Bay Clinic team.”
“She has earned my respect for her professionalism and passion to the practice of nursing,” Strauss said at the time. “Amanda is dedicated to providing exceptional patient care and strong leadership while valuing the cultural complexities that are unique to our island.”
Opoku-Boachie said she believes that statement, which remains on the Internet, has hampered her job search.
“When you go to interview with someone, they’ve Googled you,” she said. “… How do you tell (a prospective employer) that you had a job for only three weeks and that it was because you had a baby and you were breastfeeding that baby or pumping (breast milk) at work you get fired?
“… I don’t want something like this to happen to anyone else at Bay Clinic or anywhere else. It should have never happened.”
Asked if Bay Clinic has a policy to allow nursing mothers to express breast milk in private on their breaks, Aynessazian replied: “I don’t know if it’s an explicit policy, anything like that, but we don’t discourage it.”
In an email sent later, Aynessazian wrote: “We serve primarily women and families, mothers and children. We educate mothers on breastfeeding and encourage it for our patients and staff. We do have a breastfeeding educator on staff.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.