An Alberta geneticist is suing the province's health authority, alleging she was fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle about bullying behaviour in her lab.
Stacey Hume, who worked as a joint lab head for molecular diagnostics at Alberta Precision Labs (APL) for over a decade, alleges there was a history of a "severely toxic and bullying environment" for years.
APL is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Alberta Health Services (AHS).
Hume's statement of claim for her lawsuit says junior staff would confide in her about incidents of harassment or bullying by superiors. When she tried to raise the issues with fellow lab leads and more senior directors, she alleges her name wasn't protected as a whistleblower and she was subsequently bullied by her colleagues for speaking out.
CBC News obtained a copy of the statement of claim where the allegations are laid out. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
AHS told CBC News it "is not able to comment on this matter as it is before the courts."
Hume says the situation at the lab took a particularly serious turn when in 2019 she became aware that patient reports were allegedly altered by a senior staff member at the lab in order to embarrass a junior colleague. She alleges several senior staff were aware of this but no action was taken at the time.
An HR investigation was eventually launched, which determined a charter on professional behaviour expectations should be implemented, according to the statement. However, Hume says this charter was never enforced.
Allegations of being treated like a 'snitch'
This series of events led her to meet with several senior department heads at APL later in 2019 to speak about the lack of action to address the allegations.
She alleges that a few days later, her joint lab head (who she claims failed to stop the alleged bullying incidents) "angrily burst into [her] office and demanded to know" why she had told APL brass about the alteration of patient files.
Hume alleges this colleague then told all the medical staff at the lab that she was "the snitch."
She alleges she was repeatedly targeted by the colleague, that staff were told not to trust her and she was prevented from doing her research because she was forbidden from using lab equipment and space. She tried to give a senior lab head an update on her treatment but says she did not receive a response.
Hume took medical leave in late 2020. In early 2021, Hume says, she formally invoked AHS's whistleblower policy but was told the investigation would not look into the co-lab head who allegedly targeted her. She refused to participate unless it did.
I think the medical sector is still pretty much stuck in 2007. I don't think #MeToo has hit it. - Kathryn Marshall, lawyer
"I think a lot of whistleblower protections don't have any teeth. It's all good on paper, but in practice, it's not followed. And a lot of whistleblowers, because they're not properly protected, they end up being fired," said Kathryn Marshall, Hume's lawyer.
"I think the medical sector is still pretty much stuck in 2007. I don't think #MeToo has hit it. I don't think whistleblower protections have been properly explored or enforced," said Marshall, who is with Levitt Sheikh LLP.
"In the next few years, we're going to see an explosion of cases like this because there is a lot of corruption and there's a lot of power."
Screen capture showed removal from lab head role
In the spring of last year, Hume says, she also spoke about the situation with HR at the University of Alberta (where her work mixed with her role at APL). She also told AHS about more recent instances of alleged retaliatory behaviour — like that lab staff had been told by a senior official not to speak to her and her email address was removed from receiving lab correspondence.
Eventually, Hume agreed to a workplace investigation. She was interviewed in May and was told in October the investigation had concluded.
According to the document, the day before she was supposed to meet with HR to go over the results, a colleague showed Hume a screen capture of an email informing staff that she had been removed from her role as joint lab head. It said the sole head role would go to the colleague she alleges had been punishing her for blowing the whistle.
Her HR meeting the next day concluded the lab needed further policies but that "everything else was fine," she claims.
She alleges she was terminated in November by the chair of the university's medical genetics department and was told it was because APL funding for her role was being discontinued after November 2022.
She is asking for $2.6 million in damages and lost salary in the lawsuit.