Rabbi alleges wrongful firing from hospital job

A GW Hospital rabbi who was fired for allegedly violating hospital policy said this week she thinks she was terminated because she pointed out a discrepancy between her pay grade and that of her male colleagues.

Rabbi Tamara Miller – who was also the head of spiritual care at the hospital – said hospital representatives told her she was dismissed for violating its media policy and federal patient privacy rules after she wrote publicly about comforting the family of a security guard who was shot and killed at the Holocaust Museum in June. Miller had written an essay for The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog in July about her experience praying with the wife of the deceased security guard, Stephen Johns.

Johns, who was black, was fatally shot in June by a white supremacist and Holocaust denier James Von Brunn, who is currently awaiting trial. Both Johns and Von Brunn were treated at GW Hospital, where Johns died from his injuries.

Miller said the location of the shooting – the Holocaust Museum in downtown D.C. – invoked in her a sense of dread, and writing her experiences down for the Post was cathartic.

“I was going through a post-traumatic stress syndrome, not sleeping well, having nightmares, weeping, lethargic, and I used writing as therapy, as a way to get things out of my head and on to the paper,” Miller said.

The article generated positive responses, Miller said. But in July, about a month after it was published, the hospital’s head of marketing and Miller’s immediate supervisor, Lisa McDonald, told her the article was a violation of the hospital’s privacy policy. Miller was suspended and then fired, but she says she believes she lost her job for a different reason.

“I asked several lawyers about exactly what HIPAAis, and whether I had violated privacy, and they all said not at all, it’s public information,” Miller said in reference to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects patients’ medical records and other personal information. “There’s an issue of gender pay discrimination, and it’s about money. I was asking for a salary increase.”

Miller said she had requested pay raises multiple times based on discrepancies between her pay and the pay of male staff members. Miller said she believes her termination had more to do with the recent requests than her article in the Post.

“I’m not sure if I can give you that information, but let me just say that there was quite a range between me and my male counterparts,” Miller said.

Miller said she and her attorney, Lynne Bernabei, a well-known discrimination and civil rights lawyer, believe a lawsuit is the next step, after a demand letter to the hospital sent in early September was ignored.

“We sent them a letter to try to resolve it and they just said no, no we’re not interested,” Bernabei said. “So I think a lawsuit is going to be the next step. They sent us a letter and the letter basically said you’re asking for too much, if you want to reduce your offer, we’ll consider it.”

Miller is asking for the settlement of various grievances, including a financial settlement and an amendment to the letter of termination. Miller said clearing her name so that she can gain new employment is one of her primary issues.

“To have the word ‘fired’ on your records is not a good thing,” Miller said. “So one of the things that I’m asking is that they change their letter of termination to read differently so that it doesn’t keep me from getting jobs.”

Miller said that the hospital has not responded to the letter. Heather Oldham, a spokesperson for the hospital, said the hospital “does not comment on matters concerning former employees.”

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