CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) — One of Charlotte’s “top docs” is now suing her former employer, Atrium Health, for $10 million claiming she was retaliated against and fired after taking a leave of absence to care for her sick daughter.
Dr. Courtney Stephenson founded the Charlotte Fetal Care Center at Atrium Health. The hospital touted her as one of “a few maternal-fetal specialists” in the country who could provide life-saving surgery to treat twin-twin transfusion syndrome in utero, a condition that is usually fatal to fetuses. Called one of Charlotte’s “top docs,” she innovated and performed difficult life-saving surgeries on babies inside the womb.
“Dr. Stephenson spent her entire life her, entire career saving the lives of other people’s babies,” said attorney Cate Edwards, a partner at the Edwards-Kirby law firm in Raleigh, who is handling the case. “And she went home to take care of her own child and she was terminated as a result. It’s just not right.”
In 2015, FOX 46 profiled Stephenson, after she developed and performed a groundbreaking live-saving surgery on a fetus connected to a vascular mass in the womb. The couple, whose unborn baby she saved, called her “amazing” and teared up thanking her.
“So, basically, you trailblazed this entire procedure?,” a FOX 46 reporter asked at the time.
“Somebody had to,” Stephenson replied.
According to the lawsuit filed this month, four years later she was retaliated against for taking a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act saying it was “unfair” to be “dumping her responsibilities on her partners.”
The lawsuit says Stephenson took a month leave to care for her teenaged daughter in the summer of 2019. Her daughter “suffered a relapse of a condition, which according to her daughter’s medical team, required immediate and constant care from her mother,” the lawsuit states.
“The reality is a lot of employers don’t respect or understand the Family Medical Leave Act,” said Edwards. “And they think of it as an employee trying to take vacation.”
According to the complaint, she was called into work while on leave and then overly scrutinized when she returned. The lawsuit says her hospital privileges were revoked and she was told her sit in her office and not do any work all day before being fired.
Edwards says the retaliation – being called into meetings – impacted patient care.
The Fetal Care Center she founded is now closed. Her attorney says there is no one else qualified to do the job Stephenson did.
“That’s her biggest concern: What’s going to happen to those patients,” said Edwards.
Atrium Health says it appreciates Stephenson’s years of service but disputes her account saying her firing was “not in any way related” to her FMLA leave. The hospital says it supported Stephenson’s FMLA leave and says she and her attorneys know why she was let go. A hospital spokesperson did not elaborate.
“The facts differ significantly from what is described in the lawsuit,” Atrium Health said in a statement. “We regret Dr. Stephenson has chosen to initiate this lawsuit, but we will defend the decision we made.”
Stephenson’s attorney says the retaliation only started after she put in for FMLA leave.
“She was ultimately terminated from a job that she had been doing, and doing very well, for over 15 years,” said Edwards. “So the fact that that [retaliation]…started happening within days of her taking FMLA leave was a pretty good indication in and of itself of what the motivator was.”
Atrium Health says additional comments will be saved for the courtroom.
The lawsuit is seeking damages related to breach of contract, back pay, loss of earnings, and emotional distress.
“Dr. Stephenson built the Charlotte Fetal Care Center,” said Edwards. “She worked at Atrium her entire career, 15 years, and she has basically lost her life’s work. It’s been devastating for her.”
Stephenson now works as a neonatal physician at Piedmont Medical Center in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
ATRIUM HEALTH RESPONSE
Atrium Health provided FOX 46 with the following statement:
“Atrium Health appreciates Dr. Stephenson’s years of service. The reasons we discontinued our relationship with Dr. Stephenson well over a year ago were and are known to her and have been thoroughly explained to her legal counsel. Atrium Health’s decision was entirely legal and appropriate and was not in any way related to her FMLA allegations. Our mission is to serve the medical and related needs of our community and we fully support all of our employees, including Dr. Stephenson, who need to take family medical leave to care for themselves or their family members. We regret Dr. Stephenson has chosen to initiate this lawsuit, but we will defend the decision we made.
“The facts differ significantly from what is described in the lawsuit; however, we believe it is best to allow disputes like this to be resolved through the legal process rather than through public statements. We will reserve additional comments regarding Dr. Stephenson’s departure for a more appropriate time and forum.”
DEPT. OF LABOR RESPONSE
Under FMLA, certain employees are allowed to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. The Department of Labor, which administers and enforces the leave, says it investigated and cited Atrium Health in Raleigh for a FMLA record keeping violation. The violation did not carry back wages or penalties.
A spokesperson for the Department of Labor provided the following information about FMLA:
“The FMLA covers all private sector employers who employ 50 or more employees for at least 20 calendar workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year — including joint employers and successors of covered employers are covered employers under the FMLA. As well as public agencies, including State, local and Federal employers, and local education agencies (such as public and private elementary and secondary schools). FMLA applies to public agencies and schools, whether public or private, regardless of the number of employees. Evidence suggests that adopting flexible practices in the workplace potentially boosts productivity, improves morale, and benefits the economy.
Workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love and who need their care. The FMLA allows employees to balance the demands of their work and family lives; it promotes the economic security of families and helps to preserve family integrity by allowing eligible employees to take unpaid leave for qualifying family or medical reasons.
The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a designated 12-month leave year for specified family and medical reasons. This may include COVID-19 when complications arise that create a “serious health condition” as defined by the FMLA. Eligible employees may also take up to 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness when the employee is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin of the service member.
An employer may be liable for compensation and benefits lost by reason of the violation, for other actual monetary losses sustained as a direct result of the violation, and for appropriate equitable or other relief, including employment, reinstatement promotion, or any other relief tailored to the harm suffered. An employer could also be liable for liquidated damages and civil money penalties.”