TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida's ousted nursing home ombudsman alleges in a “whistleblower'' lawsuit that he was forced to resign as retaliation for his advocacy on behalf of residents and his use of the new federal health care law to seek ownership and management information.
Brian Lee's suit was served Thursday on the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. It also names two industry organizations as defendants.
Lee is seeking damages of more than $15,000 rather than reinstatement. He contends he was told he'd be fired if he didn't resign after representatives of the Florida Health Care Association and Florida Assisted Living Association complained to the department about him and threatened to send letters to Gov. Rick Scott asking that he be replaced.
The Republican governor, a former hospital chain CEO, has been an outspoken opponent of the federal law, which the state is challenging in court.
Lee's troubles began after he sent letters to all 677 nursing homes in Florida in January asking for information about their owners and directors as authorized by the federal law to promote transparency and accountability within the industry.
Interim Elder Affairs Secretary Charles T. Corley, a Scott appointee who served briefly as Lee's boss, appointed Jim Crochet, who had been a lawyer for the department, after Lee resigned in February. Lee sued last week in state Circuit Court in Tallahassee.
Elder Affairs spokeswoman Ashley Marshall and Florida Health Care Association spokeswoman Kristen Knapp said they couldn't comment Friday because their attorneys were still reviewing the lawsuit.
Florida Assisted Living Association executive director Patricia Lange also said she couldn't comment because her organization has not yet received the lawsuit.
The suit contends Lee has “lost the capacity for the enjoyment of life'' as a result of his ouster although he had “received stellar evaluations'' and “developed a national reputation for having effectively advocated for residents of Florida's long-term care facilities and their families.''
It also alleges he's been embarrassed and suffered harm to his reputation as well as emotional distress and mental pain while losing “opportunities, income, benefits and prestige.''
Lee contends his firing violated a whistleblower law that protects public employees who take such actions as he did in reporting violations of rules and regulations and/or malfeasance, misfeasance and gross neglect to state and federal agencies that oversee nursing homes.
The long-term care ombudsman program, now headed by Crochet, costs about $3 million annually, with most of that coming from the federal government.
Most of its work is done by volunteers who investigate complaints from nursing home residents and advocate on their behalf. All states have such agencies, which are mandated by the Older Americans Act.
Lee's ouster drew complaints from volunteers. The federal Administration on Aging has launched an investigation.