Three former instructors in the Missouri Southern State University School of Nursing have filed individual whistleblower lawsuits against the university’s Board of Governors, alleging they were improperly fired because they reported problems in the program to the Missouri State Board of Nursing.

The lawsuits were filed in October in Jasper County Circuit Court, according to online court records.

The former faculty members — Coeta Ogle, of Carl Junction; Sara Staples, of Joplin; and Peyton Kessler, of Oswego, Kansas — say in their lawsuits that they worked for Missouri Southern under a series of one-year contracts that required notice of renewal or nonrenewal by March 1 of each year.

The lawsuits state the faculty members were orally told on that date that their contracts would be renewed, but on July 29, 2020, the three plaintiffs and one other person, not named in the petitions, were fired.

When asked to comment on the lawsuits, Missouri Southern officials responded with a statement: “We are unable to comment on any pending litigation. We know how important our nursing program is to this university, as well as the Four-State Area, and we are unequivocally dedicated and committed to ensuring it is of exceptional quality and will provide students with an outstanding educational experience.”

Efforts to obtain comment from the Kansas City lawyers representing the three were unsuccessful.

Allegations

The complaints made in each lawsuit are nearly identical in wording.

They say that Missouri Southern terminated the contracts in violation of the Missouri Public Employee Whistleblower Act by doing so “without proper, timely notice.”

In their complaints, Ogle, Staples and Kessler say they and others started complaining and reporting "various practices and conditions in the School of Nursing," including inadequate staffing and overload, inadequate teacher-student ratios, overworked faculty, inadequate resources, unfair treatment of faculty and failure to follow policies.

The practices about which the plaintiffs "complained constituted reports of mismanagement, violations of policy, abuse of authority, and violations of the laws governing accreditation of nursing programs in the state of Missouri,” the lawsuits allege.

The complaints describe a series of events that started in March 2020 when the plaintiffs and others attended a faculty accreditation meeting where some of the issues in the program were discussed.

The plaintiffs say the Missouri State Board of Nursing, responding to an anonymous complaint, started an investigation into the university’s nursing program in the spring of 2020, and the plaintiffs continued reporting what they claim were “illegal conduct and violations of policy into the summer of 2020.”

The lawsuits contend a supervisor, who is not named in the document, “warned a co-worker" that unless the person who made the anonymous complaint that led to the board's investigation was exposed, one of the plaintiffs and all others thought to be responsible would be fired.

The plaintiffs say the supervisor instructed them and one other person not to attend a meeting with the nursing board investigator scheduled for July 9, 2020; however, in that meeting, the plaintiffs told the investigator they had been told not to attend.

The three plaintiffs and one other employee were fired July 28.

The plaintiffs say Missouri Southern’s actions constitute whistleblower retaliation because their reports established that the university was not meeting its obligations under accreditation standards or the Missouri State Nursing Act and that the school was failing to comply with previous reviews by the Missouri State Nursing Board.

They say their reports and complaints were the “motivating factor in the termination” of their contracts and that “reasons given for the termination are pretextual and not believable.”

No specific money damages are requested. The plaintiffs ask for “judgment against the defendant for actual damages and costs incurred herein and for such other relief as the court deems just and proper.”

Program hold

In the weeks after the meetings noted in the lawsuits, Missouri Southern announced it was not accepting new students in the spring of 2021.

On Aug. 20, 2020, a statement on the university’s website announced that “new nursing program leadership and faculty have been hired and are committed to Missouri Southern’s mission and values.”

The statement said: “In 2019, prompted by board pass rates in the nursing program, Missouri Southern State University and the Missouri Board of Nursing began the process for curriculum and programmatic changes.

“As a result, a hold has been placed on accepting a new cohort beginning in the spring of 2021. The hold will not affect the current Bachelor of Science in nursing students nor the program’s national accreditation status.”

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