A former Memphis VA employee terminated shortly after blowing the whistle on poorly maintained dialysis machines has been ordered to be reinstated with back pay.
Sean Higgins was terminated by the Memphis VA in August 2014 after the head of the Memphis VA, C. Diane Knight, determined that Higgins was creating a hostile work environment based on an incident in a meeting in April 2014.
Higgins was written up after he protested in a meeting that the air conditioning system in the area where he worked wasn’t being fixed in a timely manner: “You didn’t care about the air conditioner when it was only white people,” Higgins said in the meeting.
He was written up days after filing a complaint with the Joint Commission that the dialysis machines weren’t being cleaned properly. This turned into a scandal after Higgins went anonymously to the local media.
Judge Pamela Jackson of the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) ruled on October 20, 2015 that the Memphis VA terminated Higgins without merit and ordered he be reinstated immediately with full back pay and interest.
“The agency has failed to prove its charge,” Jackson stated in her decision while also noting that his comment came in response to a dire situation, “I find that although the appellant made the comments in a less than optimal manner, it is undisputed that he had been working under less than optimal working conditions for a period of several months, and it was perhaps not realistic to expect that tensions would not be high, and the meeting would proceed as any other.”
Even those who testified at the MSPB hearing that Higgins comments were threatening admitted that the area he worked in had a broken down air conditioner which caused the area to routinely go from extremely hot to extremely cold.
But Higgins told TheDC that the main witnesses against him — David Huhnan the head of the business office and Robert Pesch the chief of engineering — had ulterior motives for their testimony because he’d blown the whistle on mishaps in each of their respective departments.
In March 2014, Higgins made an Office of Special Counsel complaint about medical records backlogs. The medical records department is under the purview of the business office headed by Huhnan.
Higgins also made a complaint to the VA Office of Inspector General about the misuse of a government vehicle in 2013. He implicated Pesch, among others, in that complaint.
Willie Logan,a spokesman for the Memphis VA, declined to comment. A message to Higgins’ attorney, Joree Brownlow, was left unreturned.
Judge Jackson’s order gives the Memphis VA twenty days to comply.