SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A former medical director is suing Sanford Clinic, saying her North Dakota-based supervisors pushed her out after she raised serious security and safety concerns.
Dr. Jolene Mitchell was medical director at the Sanford Clinic in Sioux Falls from July 2017 to April 2019, when she resigned under pressure from administrators, she said.
In her lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court in South Dakota on Wednesday, Aug. 28, Mitchell said she quickly grew concerned about security measures at the clinic after she was hired.
Sanford Clinic, described in court documents as "part of Sanford Health," provides outpatient occupational health and environmental medical services, such as drug and employment screenings, at facilities in North Dakota and South Dakota.
The lone South Dakota facility in Sioux Falls is at higher risk than other facilities because it often determines a potential employee's eligibility for a job and provides services for patients who are incarcerated, on work release or on parole or probation, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said she documented numerous safety and security concerns at the clinic including patients who threatened staff, staff members unaware of a Sanford internal incident reporting system, and a lack of functioning panic buttons and security cameras.
Mitchell raised the concerns with her North Dakota-based supervisors, Dr. Joel Blanchard and Dr. Stephanie Murdock, over the following months with "little or no follow up," she said.
Mitchell described a number of safety and security incidents during 2018 in her complaint. On Jan. 25, a patient sexually assaulted several staff members, then grabbed Mitchell with both hands and refused to let go. Mitchell was able to escape, she said, but she sprained her wrist. On June 18, a disruptive patient punched Mitchell, who was then pregnant, in the abdomen. A patient attempted to drive over a woman in the clinic parking lot on July 21.
On July 24, 2018, Mitchell wrote a letter to Sanford executives begging for security help, saying she could not keep her staff or patients safe.
On July 27, an incarcerated patient, a convicted sex offender, wrote to Mitchell to say he was "super attracted" to her and made comments about her children, Mitchell said.
A week later, on July 31, a clinic staff member submitted a written complaint about the need for additional security, the complaint states.
The following day, Mitchell said she was informed Blanchard, her supervisor, would be driving from Bismarck to visit the clinic. A director from Sanford's human resources department also attended the meeting. According to the complaint, Blanchard told Mitchell the meeting was to address her performance.
Blanchard discussed several of the safety events chronicled by Mitchell, blamed her for her behavior at several of them and explained away others, Mitchell said. He also accused her of inappropriately discussing a patient's private history in the clinic's reception area and conducting internet searches on patients, accusations Mitchell disputed. She was also pressured to sign the forms needed for her to take part in a year-long counseling program.
Blanchard suggested Mitchell take time off from her position to deal with possible "complications" to her pregnancy when the patient punched her in the abdomen. Mitchell refused. Blanchard then said it would be best if she no longer served as medical director and she was told to step down from the position immediately, Mitchell said.
Mitchell continued to work as a clinician and treat patients at the clinic, resisting what she described as ongoing pressure to take the year-long counseling program, which she considered a psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation since its results were not confidential and could be reviewed by her employer.
Mitchell went on maternity leave on Dec. 29, during which she says Sanford told her a supervisor inappropriately accessed her private medical records the previous June. Mitchell returned to work on April 1 but resigned two weeks later, citing an intolerable work environment.
Mitchell has since moved with her family to Kansas, where she earns less than she made in the Sanford position, she said. She's seeking compensatory and punitive damages, back pay, front pay and attorney's fees.
Paul Hanson, president of Sanford Sioux Falls, issued a statement on the lawsuit, saying patient and workplace safety is "always our top priority."
"Sanford Health investigated and addressed Dr. Jolene Mitchell's concerns during her employment," he said. "After Dr. Mitchell's resignation, OSHA conducted an independent investigation of the conditions where Dr. Mitchell worked and found no workplace safety violation or citations."