Administrator fired in TB outbreak sues DHEC for wrongful termination

Spartanburg Herald JournalJune 19, 2013 

  • By the numbers

    • More than 90 people have tested positive for the tuberculosis germ in Greenwood County.

    • Twelve, 10 of them children, were found to have abnormal chest X-rays, indicating they had developed the disease.

    • Two school employees are contagious; one is confined in a Columbia medical facility for failing to limit his exposure to others.

    SOURCE: DHEC’s website

— The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control told a program manager for tuberculosis not to test children after an outbreak in Greenwood County, then fired her because she did not test children.

Malinda Martin has filed a lawsuit against DHEC claiming wrongful termination. Martin, a registered nurse who lives in Spartanburg County, was hired by DHEC in 1992 and became program manager for tuberculosis in the Upstate Public Health Region in 2008, overseeing an 11-county area.

DHEC fired Martin on May 30, nearly two months after a Ninety Six Primary school employee tested positive for TB.

“Although you were advised by Central Office TB (tuberculosis) staff not to follow up on TB testing on the group of students at the school, it was still your decision on whether or not further testing should be done. Despite the high rate, you decided to continue the process and not expand testing to the students,” according to a termination letter provided to the Herald-Journal by Martin’s attorney, John Reckenbeil.

A DHEC spokesman wrote in an email that the agency cannot comment on pending legal matters.

The suit, filed in Greenwood County, alleges Martin was fired “for failing to take it upon herself to unlawfully, and without authorization, test the children at the school for tuberculosis.”

Martin said she was taken aback by the termination. Reckenbeil said other colleagues who assisted Martin in the early weeks of the investigation also have been fired. He did not say how many.

DHEC director Catherine Templeton earlier said she fired two employees and left open the possibility of more disciplinary action. She has contended that the exposures to children by a school worker likely occurred last winter – before DHEC learned of the TB threat in March, she said.

Reckenbeil said Martin was “screaming from the mountain top” about their initial findings and asking higher ups for guidance.

Reckenbeil said Martin and another nurse were notified of a patient at Self Memorial Hospital in Greenwood County who tested positive for tuberculosis.

Martin investigated the positive test based on DHEC guidelines. She and a colleague toured the school and saw things that troubled them. The place where the employee worked was adjacent to a classroom.

“We were very, very concerned about these schoolchildren,” Martin said.

Martin said on April 8, she and another nurse were told they were overreacting in a conference call.

Concerns also were shared via emails and texts, she said.

Martin, in an email to several DHEC colleagues, asked for guidance in providing information to the school superintendent and a concerned community member.

Reckenbeil said Martin sought help because she would have broken the law had she tested children at the school and would be facing hundreds of assault charges.

The suit says DHEC failed to respond to Martin’s questions, “despite being warned of the gravity of the situation,” and that the agency did not decide to test school children until the end of May – more than a month after learning initial results of the investigations. It also alleges that Martin’s “persistence to move forward with the investigation was de-railed by her superiors.

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