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Researcher seeking damages after 'vague' suspension from health ministry

One of the people the British Columbia ministry of health recently suspended without pay is suing for wrongful dismissal and defamation.

Lawyers acting for researcher Malcolm Maclure filed a notice of civil claim in the B.C. Supreme Court on Sept. 14, which the Vancouver Sun reported today.

So far five people have been fired and two suspended in an investigation that on Sept. 5 newly appointed Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said was related to potential conflicts of interest, contracting and responsible data management. Preliminary findings have been turned over to the RCMP to consider investigating, she said.

The Tyee reported last week that at least three of the people affected had hired lawyers and were considering suing the government, and that three others were preparing a grievance through the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

Highlights of Maclure's notice of claim include:

"The Plaintiff obtained the Director, Research and Evidence Development position as a result of his exemplary qualifications and reputation as a world leading authority in the field of health services epidemiology and academic status as a distinguished scholar.

"At that time the Plaintiff held the prestigious positions of Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health; President of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, the premier North American society for epidemiology.

"At all material times the Plaintiff carried out the duties of his employment under the Employment Contract as a loyal civil servant and skilled medical professional. He was at all times during his employment, scrupulous in avoiding conflicts of interest and diligent in preserving and improving data privacy. He was at all times fair and balanced in his role as advisor and facilitator of researchers and in his support of government needs through his research grants.

"On June 26, 2012, the Plaintiff commenced a holiday with his family in Europe. While the Plaintiff was on holiday, his employment email account was shut down by the Employer. As a result, the Plaintiff was unable to access any emails through his employment email address.

"On or about July 23, 2012, while in France, by using his wife's email address, the Plaintiff was able to receive a letter from the Employer dated July 17, 2012 addressed to him and originally delivered to his employment email address.

"In the July 17, 2012 letter, the Employer, acting through an Assistant Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Health, informed the Plaintiff that he was suspended without pay pending an investigation into vague allegations of workplace misconduct . . . The Plaintiff was shocked by the July 17, 2012 suspension letter.

"The July 17, 2012 suspension letter contained a direction to the Plaintiff not to communicate anything about his suspension with any external stakeholders or other employees directly or indirectly.

"Before the Plaintiff received the July 17, 2012 suspension letter, the Defendant recklessly announced its decision to suspend the Plaintiff without pay widely to staff within the Ministry of Health, without regard or concern to causing damage to the Plaintiff's reputation within the Ministry of Health and in the broader health services community of medical professionals and academics. The Defendant's announcement was defamatory and reduced the esteem and respect in which the Plaintiff was held by staff within the Ministry of Health and others within the health services community.

"The Plaintiff's receipt of the July 17, 2011 suspension letter and the Defendant's announcement described above caused the Plaintiff and his wife to suffer from emotional upset, anxiety and stress which interfered greatly with their enjoyment of their European holiday.

"The Defendant refused to provide the Plaintiff with specifics of the allegations of misconduct against him.

"The Defendant failed to provide the Plaintiff with a fair investigation into its allegations of misconduct against him.

"On or about early September 2012, the Defendant released information to news journalists, including a Vancouver Sun newspaper reporter, providing details of the termination or suspension of seven employees from the Ministry of Health, including the Plaintiff . . .

"[A news story] contained numerous quotes from the newly appointed Minister of Health, which inter alia, implied that the Plaintiff was involved in inappropriate use and sharing of patient health data, which the Defendant either knew, or ought to have known, was untrue . . .

"The media story of what was described as a health scandal involving the Ministry of Health, received widespread and high profile news reporting coverage in the major newspaper print media, television and the internet, through publications and broadcasts widely accessed by the public.

"On or about September 9, 2012, the Plaintiff's name appeared widely in media coverage in connection with reporting on the Ministry of Health scandal.

"The Plaintiff says that the Defendant's release of information to the news media described above and the Defendant's statements and publications reported in the said media, constitute defamatory statements, issued by the Defendant either with malice or as the result of gross negligence.

"The Plaintiff says that the Defendant has defamed his character and reputation and harmed him in his professional and academic positions, which he continues to hold. The Defendant's defamatory statements and publications, when reasonably considered, have had the effect of causing the Plaintiff to lose the respect and esteem of others.

"As a result of the Defendant's conduct as set out herein, the Plaintiff has suffered mental distress which was reasonably foreseeable as a result of the Defendant's unlawful conduct, the symptoms of which include:

(a) Anxiety;

(b) Emotional upset and mood swings;

(c) Lack of sleep;

(d) Nightmares;

(e) Loss of appetite;

(f) Embarrassment, humiliation and loss of self-esteem;

(g) Stress in marital and familial relationships;

(h) Inability to concentrate; and

(i) Memory loss.

Things Maclure is seeking damages for include breach of the employment contract, defamation, mental distress and loss of professional and academic opportunity. He is represented by Vancouver lawyer Theodore Arsenault.

Update, 3:52 p.m.: During the investigation, the government cancelled some $4 million a year worth of contracts with researchers at the University of Victoria and the University of B.C. to look at drugs and evidence. Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced today that just over $1 million of those contracts can now be restarted as they've been determined to be unrelated to the investigation.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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