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Lawsuit alleges 'toxic' work culture at Minnesota health department: Fired worker cites bullying, ‘illegal conduct’

ST. PAUL — A former state government employee who claims she was fired after raising concerns about what she said was a "toxic" work environment is taking her case to court.

Nancy Omondi, the former division director for the Minnesota Department of Health's Health Regulation Division, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state department in Ramsey County District Court this week.

The suit seeks more than $50,000 in damages and alleges that the agency took retaliatory action against Omondi after she attempted to expose a "toxic" culture of bullying within her division as well as "illegal conduct" taking place within the department's Office of Health Facility Complaints, the suit says.

The office is charged with fielding and investigating complaints related to the state's nursing homes, assisted living centers, home-health agencies, hospitals, and other facilities.

In a statement on the lawsuit, officials with the Department of Heath said they hired an outside law firm to investigate claims by Omondi, and the findings did not substantiate her claims.

"We stand by the actions we have taken and continue to take to ensure accountability for managers and staff," the statement read. It further states MDH officials "stand by the tremendous improvements made" in the Office of Health Facility Complaints.

The lawsuit comes several months after media reports — including a five-part series published in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune last November — found residents of senior care facilities statewide were neglected, abused and robbed. In many cases, the reports discovered perpetrators of the abuses were never punished, and in most instances complaints were never properly investigated.

The Department of Health is responsible for licensing and oversight of senior care centers.

Omondi took her concerns outside the agency after officials within the MDH ignored her concerns and instead fired her from her position, according to her suit.

Less than a month later, former Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger resigned.

In addition to filing formal complaints, the suit claims Omondi complained verbally to Ehlinger and other staff about persistent bullying she was enduring from her direct supervisor, Assistant Commissioner Gilbert Acevedo.

She also tried to meet with Ehlinger to discuss her misgivings about flaws within the division charged with investigating complaints related to the state's elder-care system, according to legal documents.

After a previous meeting with Ehlinger was abruptly canceled, another was scheduled for last Nov. 28, the same day Acevedo notified her of her termination, legal documents say.

The termination came one day before her scheduled meeting with the Office of the Legislative Auditor, the suit says. That meeting had been set up so Omondi could discuss illegal activity underway within the department.

Acevedo knew about the meeting prior to her firing, the suit says.

The suit also alleges Omondi, a Kenya native, experienced race, gender and disability-based discrimination during her roughly one year with the state agency.

Specifically, the suit states:

  • The department took no action against a subordinate of Omondi's whom she reported threatened to kill her.
  • Acevedo told her she "lacked sufficient stamina to do her job because she was a woman."
  • Acevedo tried to thwart her attempts to detail her concerns about illegal and problematic practices underway within the Office of Healthy Facility Complaints to Ehlinger, referring to her opinions on the work environment as a "burden" for the commissioner.
  • Acevedo also told her "not" to share her concerns about bullying, harassment and discrimination with Ehlinger.
  • Acevedo's bullying behavior came shortly after she told him of problems with her division's "culture, hiring practices, budget concerns and progress with inaccurate federal financial reporting among other things."
  • Omondi was fired despite previously receiving a positive performance review from her supervisor.

Acevedo could not be reached for comment.