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Court Rules Illinois Nurses Can Recover Triple Damages Under the Right of Conscience Act–Even Against Public Employers

Written by Noel Sterett on October 13, 2020 Category: Civil Litigation, Firm News

Illinois’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act, 745 ILCS 70/1 et seq., (“Conscience Act”), has long been the gold standard when it comes to protecting health care professionals’ right of conscience. Illinois doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others health care professionals enjoy a statutory right to refuse as a matter of conscience to participate in the provision of health care services they find immoral. Under the Conscience Act, it is unlawful for any public or private employer to discriminate against any health care employee in any manner because of the employee’s conscientious refusal to participate in any way in any particular form of health care service. Moreover, the Conscience Act provides health care workers the ability to file suit against their employers and recover triple their actual damages, including pain and suffering, in the event they have been discriminated against. Even when there are no actual damages, the statute provides for a minimum recovery of $2,500 for each violation and the right to recover attorneys’ fees and costs.

We currently represent nurse Sandra Rojas in her right of conscience case against her former employer, Winnebago County. Ms. Rojas lost her job of eighteen years at the Winnebago County Health Clinic because she exercised her right of conscience not to participate in the provision of abortion related services. Our case has helped clarify and reinforce the significant protections of the Conscience Act. For example, the County argued that Illinois’s Tort Immunity Act, which generally shields public entities from punitive damage awards, prohibited the court from tripling the nurse’s actual damages. Because the damage provision of Conscience Act was in conflict with the Tort Immunity Act, the court was asked to resolve the conflict.

Ultimately, the court analyzed both statutes and held that the Conscience Act’s provision trumped the Tort Immunity Act. As the court noted, the Conscience Act is a more recent statute that applies to a narrower category of claims. Therefore, under the rules of statutory construction, “the Conscience Act’s treble damages provision must be given effect.”

By reinforcing the availability of treble damages for health care professionals under the Conscience Act, even against public employers, the court’s opinion is another reminder of strength of the Conscience Act. If you are an Illinois health care professional and want to better understand or enforce your rights under the Conscience Act, please contact us.

About Dalton + Tomich

Established in 2010, Dalton + Tomich PLC is comprised of religious liberty, land use, denominational trust law, and business law attorneys. Attorney Noel Sterett has years of experience litigating under Illinois’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act and Religious Freedom Restoration Act in both trial and appellate courts. Learn more about our services at https://www.daltontomich.com/.

 

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