New Brunswick

Whistleblowers allege privacy breach, sue province

Two former special care home employees are suing the provincial government for allegedly breaching their confidentiality as informants in an investigation into a Saint John special care home.

Special care home workers lost their jobs after reporting resident mistreatment to government officials

Charlene Pitre alleges the province breached her privacy after she complained to Social Development in 2013 about the mistreatment of residents in the special care home where she worked. (CBC)
Sherry Jeffers and Charlene Pitre are suing the provincial government for allegedly breaching their confidentiality as informants to a Department of Social Development investigation into the Saint John special care home where they once worked.

"My understanding is that I was protecting residents of the home and that the department would protect us," says Pitre.

Jeffers says she knows why she lost her job.

"I lost my job because I went in and voiced my concerns," Jeffers says.

In 2013, the women reported to the Department of Social Development that residents of Sunview Manor were being yelled and cursed at by the home operator and that their medications were being misused.

Shortly after, they received letters of dismissal which stated, "Due to restructureing (sic) of the business your services will no longer be needed at sunviewmanor (sic)."

Sherry Jeffers has filed a lawsuit against the province since losing her job after complaining to Social Development in 2013 about conditions in the special care home where she worked. (CBC)
This month, both women filed statements of claim against the provincial government with the Court of Queen's Bench in Saint John alleging the department, "failed to investigate the factual background of the Plaintiff's complaints in a confidential manner."

Both women say they felt morally obligated to report their concerns to Social Development, where they say they were promised that the process would remain confidential.

The statements of claim allege only one employee of the home at the time was not laid off and the employee who stayed on was the only one who did not complain to the department.

The provincial government has yet to file a statement of defence.

In the months that followed their 2013 complaints, Pitre and Jeffers say they could not get information from the department on what it was doing with their complaints.  When months passed, they approached CBC News.

CBC News filed an access to information request in December 2013 seeking information from the department on "any and all records related to an investigation" involving Sunview Manor.

That request was also denied by the department, which cited a section of the Family Services Act, which keeps information gathered by the department as a part of an investigation confidential.

A recent report by Access to Information Commissioner Anne Bertrand noted Social Development has a responsibility to protect the personal information of people who make complaints to the department. (CBC)
Anne Bertrand, the province's access to information commissioner, recently issued a report saying confidentiality provisions under the Family Services Act should protect people who make complaints, while also allowing for transparency of department investigations.

The commissioner says she conducted an acute analysis of how Social Development handled an access to information request, after CBC News complained it was denied any information relating to the investigation.

Bertrand concluded the fact that an investigation has been undertaken and its results are, by default, public information.

Last year, the department eventually confirmed to CBC News that complaints made to the department were founded.

It said the operator was ordered not to yell or swear in the presence of residents and other orders were made to improve medication and financial management at the home, as well as incident reporting.

Pitre says she was employed as a personal care worker at the home for five years and at the time of her dismissal, made $10.25 hourly.

Jeffers says she had been employed at the home for mentally and physically disabled adults for about a year and made $10.00 per hour.

The pair, along with three other former employees who also raised concerns to Social Development, have filed a lawsuit against the home's operator Carla Cline for alleged wrongful dismissal.

That lawsuit too, alleges the dismissals were because of the employees' "reporting of concerns to the Department of Social Services."

The former employees are claiming for aggravated and punitive damages.

Cline and her lawyer, Timothy Hopkins, declined to respond to the allegations. Hopkins says a statement of defence will be filed with the court soon.

Social Development did not answer a CBC News request for its response to the allegations.