High fee award puts public and private healthcare employers on notice
Rockford, Illinois —February 16, 2022—Circuit Court Judge Eugene Doherty issued an attorney fee award of over $374,000 against Winnebago County today in a case involving the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.
Attorney Noel Sterett, a partner with the law firm of Dalton + Tomich, and his co-counsel, Whitman Brisky and Nathan Noble, filed the case in 2016 on behalf of pediatric nurse Sandra Rojas after she lost her job of 18 years at the Winnebago County Public Health Clinic. In 2015, the County’s Public Health Administrator, Dr. Sandra Martell, determined that Rojas could not keep her job at the clinic if she was not willing to accept new duties which involved providing abortion referrals and contraception. Rojas, an observant Catholic, exercised her statutory right of conscience and lost her job as a result.
“The purpose of filing this lawsuit was to ensure that no nurse or doctor is ever forced to refer for abortions—least of all those who entered the profession to follow their faith and save lives,” Sterett said. “Healthcare professionals should not be required to violate their conscience to keep their jobs. Thankfully, Illinois has laws that protect a health care professional’s right to not participate in the provision of medical services which violate their conscience,” Sterett said.
In the attorney fee award, the Court noted that the County contested the case “vigorously” over the last five years, which only added to the amount of attorney fees incurred in the case. Rojas’ attorneys defeated the County’s various efforts to have her claims dismissed and even prevailed when the County appealed to the Appellate Court.
“Nurse Rojas’s case set significant precedent and now stands as a seminal case under the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act,” Sterett said. “The Court’s fee award will hopefully encourage other public and private health care employers to respect their employees’ rights of conscience.”
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