ROCK ISLAND — A health department employee has filed a claim against the Rock Island County Health Department alleging discrimination.
Joleen Diehl, a registered nurse with the Infectious Diseases Department, filed a complaint April 11 with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination and retaliation by Chief Nursing Officer Shari Ortner, formerly known as Shari Langley.
Diehl alleges Ortner has created a hostile working environment and discriminated against Diehl by mocking her disabilities caused by irritable bowel syndrome and her status as a recovering drug addict.
Diehl cites the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying it protects recovering addicts like her from the stigma associated with her former addiction to pain medications.
Diehl states she was hired in February 2018 and by September 2018, Ornter "had created a hostile work environment based on my disabilities.
"Ms. Ortner learned of my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and made numerous comments to me and coworkers, repeatedly referring to me as 'swamp a--' and describing my condition as unfeminine," the complaint states.
"Ortner began to treat me with hostility, yelling at me, finding ways to nitpick my performance and making the job environment toxic," Diehl stated.
After Diehl joined with other employees in filing a grievance against Ortner in October, Diehl alleges Ortner retaliated against her with continued abusive behavior.
The complaint alleges that when Diehl went on vacation over Christmas, Ortner signed off on reports claiming to have covered patients for Direct Observed Behavior, as required by Illinois Department of Public Health regulations. In January, Diehl reported Ortner to the Rock Island County Health Department's medical director when she discovered Ortner had not performed Direct Observational Behavior procedures, despite reporting that she had.
"When Ms. Ortner found out I had reported the falsification, she threw the mail at me," Diehl stated in the complaint.
Ortner could not be reached for comment. Ortner was hired by the health department in December 2017.
The complaint also describes an incident on March 26, 2019, when Ortner allegedly removed all antibiotics from a supply closet and informed Diehl she would no longer be dispensing medications.
"This was humiliating to me," Diehl reported. "I felt this was a backhanded way of accusing me of stealing medications because of my addiction history and to humiliate me in the presence of staff and patients when medications were to be dispensed.
"I then found out from two employees at the front desk that Ms. Ortner informed them there were questions concerning me at the time I was hired, referring to 'serious issues in my past,' and that Ms. Ortner made statements implying I had stolen medications from this closet — which I have never done — and that I was the reason for the removal of the antibiotics from the closet.
"This has created an environment hostile to me based on my disability as a recovering addict," Diehl stated in her complaint.
Diehl further alleges that on March 28, Ortner walked into Diehl's office and verbally harassed and intimidated her and that she felt physically threatened by Ortner.
Diehl complained by email to human resources and County Administrator Jim Snider on March 29. The complaint states that on April 4, Diehl was called into a meeting with Health Department Administrator Nita Ludwig and accused of violating the chain of command by going over Ludwig's head and directly to Snider instead.
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Diehl said Tuesday that her complaint is still pending with the EOCC and the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
"My attorney is still waiting for a response before I file a lawsuit," Diehl said. "There is a strong probability of other charges to come. I just can't believe it's been allowed to go this far."
Also on April 4, Diehl states in the complaint she was accused by Ortner of mislabeling medication bottles and "issues with prescription pads.
"I have never misused any prescription pads," Diehl stated. "This allegation was baseless and used as a way to intimidate, harass and control me because of my addiction issues."
Diehl said that on April 8, Ortner called Diehl into her office again. Diehl stated she tried to bring her AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) union representative with her as a witness but was told she could not "have union representation without written approval."
According to the complaint, in another meeting between Ortner, Diehl, and Ludwig on April 8, Diehl was informed she had been reported to the Rock Island County State's Attorney's office for allegations of mislabeling antibiotics.
The complaint states Diehl was informed there would be no repercussions from the state's attorney, but that license issues could not be ruled out.
"At that time, I feared retaliation and discrimination had escalated as a potential false report against me to the state nursing license board based on the implied comment from the director," Diehl stated.
State's Attorney Patricia Castro could not be reached for comment.
Health Department Chief Operating Officer Janet Hill said Tuesday that both Diehl and Ortner are still employed by the health department.
"This is part of an ongoing legal proceeding and is not something we are at liberty to talk about at this point," Hill said.
Snider said the complaint is still pending and declined to comment further.
"All matters through the civil division are handled by our state's attorney's office," Snider said.
Diehl said since health department employees complained to county board members at the May 21 meeting, Ortner has not made any more derogatory comments.
Diehl said she is not aware of any disciplinary action taken against Ortner.
Diehl said Ludwig advised her and other health department employees to have another manager present when they have conversations with Ortner.
"Nita told us that anytime we speak with Shari and we feel unsafe, make sure there is a desk between us," Diehl said. "If Shari yells at us again and gets in our face, we are supposed to call the police. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever been through."