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Ex-Macomb morgue worker alleges she was fired for raising safety issues

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

A former worker at the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office has filed a wrongful discharge complaint against the county and several individuals, claiming she was fired after raising concerns about whether employees were wearing proper protective equipment during autopsies.

Robinette Struckle, a newly hired and probationary employee, filed a lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court alleging violation of Michigan’s Whistleblower Protection Act. It names the county, Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz, the Spitz Pathology Group, county Public Health Official William Ridella and Human Resources Director Andrew McKinnon as defendants.

Macomb Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz

Under the act, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a worker for reporting suspected of on-job violations of local, state or federal law.

Struckle, a former morgue specialist, alleges she was terminated in September 2020 within a few days of raising concerns about not being properly fitted for an N-95 protective respirator mask and questioned whether workers were wearing protective clothing as required under health and safety laws.

Her lawsuit said as part of their duties, morgue specialists must process bodies for autopsy, assist in autopsies, collect human fluid and tissue and work with dangerous carcinogenic chemicals, like formaldehyde.

“It (lawsuit) is the height of patently bizarre behavior,” county corporation counsel John Schapka said Friday, responding on behalf of the defendants. “Filing a lawsuit after being terminated two days into employment during which she demanded a $24,000 pay raise, a promotion for a job that did not exist and a 90-day paid leave of absence to meet her demands.

“We don’t like lawsuits but we don’t fear this one,” he said.

Schapka said county employees have been interviewed regarding Struckle’s complaints and have said the allegations are baseless. He also said all necessary health and safety measures, including PPE, are adhered to at the morgue.

In her complaint, filed Friday, Struckle alleges Macomb officials violated her First Amendment free speech rights in firing her for raising concerns. Struckle had previously worked in forensic medicine with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office in Seattle and the Kitsap County Coroner’s Office, also in Washington state.

On Sept. 16, Struckle says in the suit that she worked during an autopsy being supervised by Spitz. She said she questioned another employee about his lack of safety clothing, including being “fit tested” for a mask and the worker was unfamiliar with safety laws, rules and regulations concerning morgue work.

After the autopsy, Struckle alleges she also had a discussion with Spitz, who commented about a recent discharge of four employees over allegations of sexual harassment and media reports of a hostile work environment.

Spitz downplayed the claims of the terminated workers and said the resulting news coverage was due to the public’s “obsession with dead bodies” according to Struckle’s complaint.

The following day, after another autopsy, Struckle said she expressed concerns about noncompliance with federal requirements regarding respirators and employees wearing contaminated scrubs home to launder. She also mentioned a lack of radiation monitor badges and exposure monitoring for employees conducting X-rays, plus a lack of testing and training for employees regarding tuberculosis, blood-borne pathogens, and other safety concerns.

“… Spitz told Plaintiff she was 'overqualified for the position' and needed a job where she could create and enforce policies and it was too late to apply for the Office Manager position,” according to the complaint.

Struckle said on Sept. 18, Spitz became “defensive, agitated and irritated” by her questions, again told her she was overqualified for the Morgue Specialist position and insisted she apply for a job where she could create and enforce policies.

She said she sent emails to Ridella identifying her concerns and on Sept. 18 requested a paid leave for 90 days “while we sort out the next steps,” according to the complaint. The suit says she received an email from Ridella, also copied to McKinnon, thanking her for her email and advising her not to report to the Medical Examiner’s office on Monday.

On Sept. 21, she received another email informing her “it has been concluded that you have not successfully completed your probationary period” and that her employment with the county had been terminated, the complaint says.

The lawsuit seeks damages to be determined, including back wages and reinstatement to Struckle’s former job. It has been assigned to Judge Terrence Berg.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319