Former TB analyst sues DHEC, leader for slander

tflach@thestate.comJuly 31, 2013 

The one-time head of South Carolina’s tuberculosis prevention staff is suing her former bosses for slander, after comments that the investigation into an outbreak of the disease in a Greenwood County school was botched.

Shea Rabley, of Irmo, who served as prevention staff director until May 30, is accusing state health department chief Catherine Templeton and the agency itself of making Rabley a scapegoat.

The inquiry into the outbreak this spring “was handled in proper fashion and met the standards” set by state and federal guidelines, said Rabley’s lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Richland County court by her attorney, Benjamin Mabry.

Rabley said in an interview Tuesday with The State that she was forced out of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control without being given a chance to discuss the Greenwood County investigation with Templeton.

Mark Plowden, spokesman for DHEC, declined comment on the lawsuit and Rabley’s remarks.

All told, more than 100 people in Greenwood County – including more than 50 elementary schoolchildren – have tested positive for germs associated with tuberculosis, a contagious disease that health officials believe was spread by a school janitor.

Parents of the students at Ninety Six Elementary School, 75 miles west of Columbia, are upset with what they consider a slow-moving inquiry kept quiet for several weeks and for lack of tests on children until May 31.

Rabley is the highest-ranking of four DHEC staffers who Templeton said were fired for poor response by her agency.

But Mabry said Templeton “failed to defend her own agency against unjustified criticism” for following its own guidelines in such investigations.

All four are asking courts for damages for what they say are wrongful dismissals.

Rabley, head of the tuberculosis team for seven of her 32 years at DHEC, said she sent bosses written reports weekly and updates as necessary but heard nothing from them until a few days before her dismissal.

“Was it looked at or not?” she said of those reports, completing the statement with a shrug.

Templeton complained DHEC staff made several missteps, failing to make the investigation urgent.

DHEC officials say they were notified of the problem in early March, but families weren’t warned of it until late May.

Confirming the disease is easier said than done, the lawsuit says.

“Because of the science and medicine involved, it takes a substantial period of time to know if there is a TB outbreak,” the lawsuit said.

It can take up to 10 weeks to learn if someone has tuberculosis, Rabley said.

In the interview, Rabley said state and medical confidentiality laws and the need to avoid false readings prevented public disclosure of the situation for weeks.

School officials failed initially to tell DHEC staff that pupils may have been in contact with the janitor, leading to a focus at first on teachers, cooks and other custodians, the lawsuit says.

Rabley, who helped draft state guidelines on tuberculosis investigations, said she followed them “by the book.”

Templeton and top aides lack “a working understanding” on the conduct of such checks, the lawsuit says.

“If the allegations of Rabley’s complaint are true,” Mabry said, “it means that the director of DHEC, Catherine Templeton, not only failed to stand behind her own agency’s employees who simply followed DHEC’s written policies, but also failed to defend her own agency against unjustified criticism. If true, some might conclude, figuratively speaking, Director Templeton didn’t just throw the four under the bus; she hopped right in and grabbed the wheel.”

Tuberculosis is a contagious but relatively rare disease in the United States. It is typically spread through the air by coughing, singing or even breathing. It causes people to cough or spit up blood while experiencing chest pain. It can be fatal, but that rarely happens in the United States with treatment.

Larger outbreaks have occurred in prisons, boarding homes and other settings during her 17 years as a tuberculosis specialist at DHEC, Rabley said, without citing specific examples.

In her interview, Rabley also spoke of her role in the formation of a consulting firm on the disease, but said it had nothing to do with the Greenwood outbreak.

Experts at the nationally-known Mayo Clinic approached her team this spring about providing instructional material for training health care personnel, the lawsuit says.

Preliminary discussions about the idea happened on personal time, the lawsuit says, adding the idea is similar to what has been allowed for other DHEC staff.

Rabley said she had “never done anything like that” but listened to the proposal.

No request for approval by DHEC superiors was submitted before she left her job, because no agreement to provide instruction was reached, she said.

Rabley, 60, said she’s kept quiet about the situation as part of a deal with DHEC saying she will be listed as retiring voluntarily to settle her challenge to her ouster.

But Templeton’s comments, made earlier this month, that Rabley and other DHEC staff were fired after they ”screwed this up” violated that agreement and harms her professional reputation, the lawsuit says.

Read the complaint

Shea Rabley's complaint against DHEC

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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