Brenda Steinnagel seeking more than $3 million in damages
(Canadian OH&S News) — A Hamilton, Ont. doctor has filed a lawsuit against the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and her former employer, Workplace Health & Cost Solutions (WHCS) in Vaughan, for wrongful dismissal from the latter — claiming that the former tried to force her to change her medical opinion about an injured worker, before pressuring the latter to fire her.
According to a Statement of Claim provided to COHSN and dated July 31, Dr. Brenda Steinnagel, 50, is seeking more than $1.3 million in damages from the WSIB and more than $1.8 million from WHCS, plus a declaration that the latter fired her wrongfully in April.
WHCS assigned Dr. Steinnagel to review the workers’ compensation claim of a hospital security guard who had suffered a head injury while restraining a patient late last year, the court document says. But Dr. Steinnagel, who had worked for the company since Sept. 2012, claims that WHCS opposed her medical opinion of the worker’s condition and even tried to “coerce” her into signing a statement that contradicted her conclusions. For several months, both WHCS and the WSIB allegedly waged “a relentless campaign” to make her alter her conclusions, but she refused to take part in the fraud, the Statement of Claim notes.
“She gave an opinion and was fired for reaching the wrong opinion from their perspective,” explained Mark Polley, Dr. Steinnagel’s lawyer, a partner with law firm Polley Faith in Toronto. “It’s a pretty outrageous situation, to be fired for refusing to participate in a fraud, essentially. That’s our view of it.
“And even if they disagreed with her opinion,” Polley added, “her role in a situation is to give the opinion and do it based on her opinion, not what someone else tells her.”
“There is no truth to Dr. Steinnagel’s allegations, and we deny acting wrongfully in any way,” WSIB senior public-affairs consultant Christine Arnott said in an e-mailed statement. “The WSIB will vigorously defend the lawsuit.”
But Polley countered that Dr. Steinnagel had received a forwarded e-mail from WHCS president Yvonne Chan on April 2, stating that WHCS was terminating her employment at the WSIB’s behest.
“So there was sort of a clear pressure, at least not to use her for opinions, which is basically the work they were doing,” said Polley. “So it doesn’t leave much room for her to do work there.”
Employment lawyer Greg McGinnis, who is defending WHCS in the suit, told COHSN that he believed Dr. Steinnagel’s accusations of improper conduct to be “without merit.” He added that he had filed a pleadings motion to have some of her claims struck from the case.
“We have taken the view that many of her claims are not properly pleaded and don’t actually belong in the claim,” said McGinnis, who practises with Toronto law firm Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark. “We acknowledge that she is making a claim for wrongful dismissal and that there’s a lot of extraneous noise surrounding that particular claim.” The WSIB has filed a similar motion on their part, he added.
The defendants’ pleadings motions will be heard in court on Oct. 26, with the lawsuit itself likely following in November.
“I’m not naïve; sometimes you are successful in that, sometimes you’re not,” said McGinnis, referring to pleadings motions. “That’s up to the judge.”
Polley speculated that this type of alleged fraud may be a problem with the workers’ compensation system overall. “What we’re hearing is that this is a more widespread issue than just this one case,” he said.
“It’s part of this general pressure to reach opinions that allow them to save money,” added Polley, referring to the WSIB. “It was the wrong thing to do regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with the opinion.”