High Court Rules against Fired Nurses

Article excerpt

NURSES WHO direct less-skilled employees as part of their duties are supervisors and not protected by federal labor law, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote Monday.

The decision, enormously important for the health-care industry, rejected the National Labor Relations Board's interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act.

"We must decide whether the board's test for determining if nurses are supervisors is rational and consistent with the act," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court. "We agree with the court of appeals that it is not."

Kennedy said the the labor board wrongly concluded in an Ohio case that nurses who direct aides are acting only in behalf of patients and not in behalf of their employers.

Also Monday, the court ruled unanimously that federal judges cannot second-guess government decisions to close military bases. The decision was a victory for the Clinton administration in its effort to shrink the post-Cold War armed forces.

The base-closing decision reversed an appellate court ruling that had let Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., challenge the government's decision to close the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Three former staff nurses at the Heartland nursing home in Urbana, Ohio, were involved in the nursing ruling. The 100-bed nursing home is owned by the Toledo-based Health Care & Retirement Corp. of America, which owns and operates about 140 nursing homes in 27 states.

As part of their duties, Heartland's staff nurses give orders to the nurse's aides. But the National Labor Relations Board noted that staff nurses do not have the power to hire or fire the aides and never discipline them.

Staff nurses Julie Goldsberry, Cynthia Cordrey and Ruby Wells, upset by how Heartland was run, traveled to Toledo to speak to a Health Care & Retirement Corp. official in early 1989. Shortly thereafter, the three were disciplined and then fired.

A complaint filed with the labor board alleged that Heartland had engaged in an unfair labor practice by firing the nurses for engaging in concerted activity aimed at improving working conditions for themselves and fellow employees. Such activity is protected under the labor law.

Heartland officials said the three had been supervisors and therefore were not entitled to labor law protection. The labor board ruled that they were not supervisors and ordered them reinstated with back pay.

But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year refused to enforce the board's order, ruling that the nurses had been supervisors.

The four dissenters in the Supreme Court decision said the ruling could affect other workers besides the three nurses.

"If any person who may use independent judgment to assign tasks to others or direct their work is a supervisor, then few professionals employed by organizations subject to the act will receive its protections," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the dissenters.

In St. Louis, Jan Polizzi, a past president of the Missouri Nurses Association, said, "I just wish a judge could follow a nurse around and see whether we're acting on behalf of the patient or the hospital. …