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Thursday, July 14, 2011 12:15 pm

Fired worker sues state over medical privacy

Fake bomb threat tied to fight over doctor-patient confidentiality

A dispute over a computer program at a state agency in Springfield has escalated into a federal court case involving doctor-patient confidentiality, more than $771,000 in damages sought and even a fake bomb threat.

Michael Sanders, 46, of Springfield, a former data processing technician with the Illinois Department of Central Management Services (CMS) since 2005, is suing CMS in federal court on claims that the state agency violated his right to medical privacy and fired him without cause.

Sanders’ lawsuit arose from a disagreement over whether CMS can force employees to attend “independent medical examinations” – known as IMEs – and revoke an employee’s right to doctor-patient confidentiality. Sanders has been removed from his job at CMS three times for refusing to attend IMEs, and although he was reinstated after fighting the first two dismissals, he is fighting for more than just his job this time.

In August 2005, Sanders and his immediate supervisor at CMS had a disagreement over Sanders’ handling of a computer software glitch. Sanders alleges that the supervisor stood over him and berated him in a threatening manner, prompting Sanders to later call the Illinois State Police.

Sanders was accused of insubordination because of the incident, and a disciplinary proceeding against him was scheduled in September 2005. Sanders became agitated and left the proceeding early, telling the union steward representing him that he was going to “get” the supervisor and that he would call the police again. Sanders was placed on administrative leave because his comments were interpreted as a threat, and CMS scheduled him for an examination with a Springfield psychologist.

But Sanders refused to go to see the psychiatrist because CMS informed him in a memo that doctor-patient confidentiality would not be in effect. Sanders says he didn’t think CMS had the right to rescind his medical privacy, so he skipped the examination and was subsequently fired.

He appealed his discharge to the Illinois Civil Service Commission, and CMS reinstated him before the commission reached a decision in that case. The Illinois Executive Inspector General ruled in January 2007 that the threat allegations against Sanders were “unfounded,” but CMS continued to schedule examinations for Sanders.

From 2005 to 2007, CMS scheduled six IMEs, all of which Sanders refused to attend. Sanders was suspended for 30 days in August 2007, and he again appealed to the Civil Service Commission.

Arguing before an administrative law judge reviewing the case, CMS said that the purpose of the examinations was to determine if Sanders was fit for duty, which the agency said would amount to a “yes or no” answer. But Sanders argued that the agency never made that clear to him or offered any rationale for the examinations. In each memo to Sanders informing him of a scheduled IME, the acting human resources director at CMS stated that the psychiatrist would “forward me the evaluation and completed physician’s statement from your examination; therefore, confidentiality between doctor and patient will not be in place.”

The administrative judge ruled in favor of Sanders, finding that the reasons CMS chose to fire Sanders were invalid because the agency had no authority to force Sanders to attend an independent medical examination.

On Feb. 26, 2009, a few days before Sanders was scheduled to return to work at the Harris Building, 100 South Grand Ave., a security guard there reported receiving a call from “an older male” saying there was a bomb in the building.

A police bomb squad and bomb-sniffing dog checked the building and found no explosives, and a subsequent phone records search revealed that no call was actually placed. The threat had been tied to Sanders by a coworker who told police that Sanders said there would be “fireworks” when he returned to work. In an interview with police, Sanders clarified that he was referring to conflicts of personality, and he was later eliminated as a suspect.

Sanders believes the bomb threat was orchestrated by a different CMS supervisor in order to get Sanders fired again. In an April 25, 2011, complaint letter to Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser, Sanders accuses the supervisor of being the “mastermind” behind the fake bomb threat, saying, “There is a history of the security staff in the Harris Building … being routinely utilized by management of that facility to harass employees.”

Illinois Times is not identifying the CMS supervisor because he has not been charged with a crime. Milhiser says there is not enough evidence to pursue charges against anyone in the case.

Sanders returned to work once more after the bomb threat incident, but was laid off shortly afterward. Alleging discrimination, Sanders took his case to federal court, where he is seeking more than $771,000 in specified damages and more damages that have yet to be calculated, including payments for personal days and more.

The case is currently in the evidence-gathering stage.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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