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Rock Island County Health Department sued. Former employee says she was fired after filing discrimination complaint

Rock Island County Health Department sued. Former employee says she was fired after filing discrimination complaint


ROCK ISLAND — A lawsuit has been filed against the Rock Island County Health Department and administrator Nita Ludwig related to discrimination allegations made against a supervisor.  

Cynthia Lodge, who was employed by the health department in the infectious diseases department from June 18 to Nov. 13, alleges she was terminated in retaliation for filing a discrimination complaint Oct. 23 against chief nursing officer Shari Ortner, who formerly went by her maiden name of Shari Langley. 

The lawsuit, filed April 12, states Lodge filed her complaint in October on behalf of coworkers who allegedly were subjected to racist and discriminatory treatment by Ortner. The suit says Lodge's termination was a violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act

"By late summer/early fall of 2018, Ortner had created a hostile working environment based on gender, race and disability discrimination," the lawsuit states. "(Lodge) witnessed Ortner referring numerous times to a nurse who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as 'swamp a--.'

"As another specific example, (Lodge) witnessed Ortner making racial comments about an African-American staff person who worked at the front desk."

The lawsuit was filed one day after Joleen Diehl, a registered nurse with the infectious diseases department, filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination and retaliation by Ortner.

Lodge is seeking $50,000, reinstatement to her job, back pay and benefits, payment of attorneys' fees, and "reasonable sums for the emotional distress she endured as a result of her termination." 

Lodge is being represented by John Doak of Katz Nowinski, P.C., of Moline.  

The lawsuit states a union representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sent Ludwig an email Oct. 22 about the situation. 

"You have a manager who is creating a hostile work environment for your employees based on disability and race," the email stated. "Some of these stories are unbelievable and would reflect poorly on the county health department. In my 10 years as a union representative, I've never seen anything this bad.

"I wanted to give you a chance to clear things up before pursuing a grievance as well as reminding you of your duty as an employer to prevent such a work environment."

The complaint states that on Oct. 25, Ludwig interviewed Lodge in connection with an investigation of the department that involved Ortner. 

Lodge also sent an email to Ludwig on Oct. 25 stating Ortner's "negative behaviors have escalated. Her verbal assaults have gone from uncivil and unprofessional to outright discrimination. This needs to be reported."

Lodge was terminated by Ludwig less than two weeks later, on Nov. 13. According to the suit, Ludwig said the reason for termination was "did not pass probation; not a good fit for the Rock Island County Health Department."

Several health department employees spoke out against Ortner's treatment of staff and Ludwig's handling of the situation during the May 21 Rock Island County Board meeting

Ortner did not return calls seeking comment. 

Jim Snider, Rock Island County administrator, declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

"I defer any comment on this to our state's attorney, Patty Castro," Snider said. 

Castro, who has been serving as acting state's attorney since John McGehee resigned to accept a position as judge, did not return calls seeking comment. 

Ludwig referred questions to Janet Hill, the health department's chief operating officer, who also declined to comment.

"While there are ongoing legal matters, we cannot comment," Hill said. "We are continuing to promote, preserve and protect the health of Rock Island County residents."

Assistant State's Attorney Caitlin Breedlove filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on May 22. The case is pending. 

In addition to the lawsuit, Lodge filed a discrimination complaint May 8 with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing the Civil Rights Act.


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