A former nurse at the La Plata County Jail has sued the jail’s health care contractor alleging the company retaliated after she raised concerns about violations of public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Allison Mitchell and Durango law office Albrechta & Albrechta filed a federal lawsuit in January alleging that Tennessee-based Southern Health Partners forced her to resign after her complaints that the company was not following public health guidelines, and in doing so violated Colorado’s public health whistleblower law.
“I was scared to speak up, but I knew I had to say something in order to protect the incarcerated patients that I was hired to serve,” Mitchell said in a news release.
The lawsuit paints a troubling picture of Southern Health Partners’ La Plata County Jail staff and the corporation’s inaction during the pandemic.
According to the lawsuit, medical providers with Southern Health Partners refused to wear masks while at work at the jail during summer 2020 before vaccinations were available.
At the time, statewide public health orders required that anyone working in critical businesses such as jails wear a mask.
When Mitchell approached her supervisor about the lack of mask wearing, she was told the company did not require mask wearing in the office so long as they remained socially distanced, and that as contract employees with Southern Health Partners, they were not required to follow jail policy or public health guidelines for mask wearing.
Attempts to reach Southern Health Partners and the company’s attorneys at Grand Junction’s Bechtel & Santo law firm were unsuccessful.
La Plata County Jail was one of the few jails and prisons in the state to limit the spread of the coronavirus throughout 2020 and 2021 before a significant outbreak in January 2022 left 68 inmates and staff members ill with COVID-19.
Capt. Ed Aber, who leads the detentions division for the Sheriff’s Office, said the jail had not yet heard about the lawsuit and declined to comment.
The lawsuit also alleges that throughout the pandemic, other medical providers with Southern Health Partners continually espoused conspiracy theories surrounding vaccines and other public health measures while harassing Mitchell for voicing her concerns.
That included writing anti-public health messages on a shared whiteboard and posting printouts around the office space, including one that said, “This is a mind control device” next to a picture of a mask.
At one point, Mitchell fell ill and did not come into work per the jail’s policy, but her supervisor encouraged her to work anyway.
After voicing her concerns, Mitchell’s co-workers allegedly created a hostile work environment, and Mitchell was no longer allowed to receive help from the company’s administrative assistant with paperwork and answering phone calls.
Mitchell’s supervisor allegedly tested positive for COVID-19 in December 2020 and knowingly worked at the jail without reporting it. That led to the jail revoking the supervisor’s security clearance.
When Southern Health Partners’ regional manager arrived for a visit and Mitchell shared her concerns, she was allegedly told “you are just going to have to let this go,” according to the lawsuit.
After a new supervisor continued to make her work challenging, including a suspension without advanced notice or the chance to make improvements, Mitchell resigned in April 2021, according to the lawsuit.
She wrote in her resignation letter, “I feel it is the intention of Southern Health Partners to terminate me because of my complaints about the company’s failure to follow or enforce even the most basic public health guidelines. I do not wish to resign, but I do not believe I have been left with any other viable option.”
After filing a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, Mitchell and her attorney David Albrechta of Albrechta & Albrechta filed the lawsuit in federal court alleging that Southern Health Partners violated Colorado’s Whistleblower Protection Public Health Emergencies Act.
Passed in 2020, the law protects employees who raise concerns about workplace health and safety practices during a public health emergency from retaliation, discrimination or action from their employers for reporting their concerns.
“Employees who speak out about an employer refusing to follow public health guidelines are protected by the PHEW Act,” Albrechta said in a news release. “This is an important law because it ensures that employees have a voice if they feel their employer is not following public health guidelines.”
In their legal response to the lawsuit submitted in March, Southern Health Partners’ lawyers with Bechtel & Santo cited insufficient evidence and denied Mitchell’s allegations, even denying that the company hired her as a registered nurse for La Plata County Jail.
Lawyers for both parties are working to set the schedule for the case before they can move to discovery and the lawsuit can proceed.
Mitchell is seeking undisclosed damages from Southern Health Partners, including compensation for lost wages, reputational damage and emotional distress.