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Magee-Womens Hospital, fired secretary sign settlement

| Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

UPMC lawyers and a former Magee-Womens Hospital secretary on Monday finally agreed on terms that will end a four-year battle over her firing.

A "full and final" confidential agreement was announced by UPMC attorney William Pietragallo during a brief hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Eugene Strassburger. The details were finalized in Strassburger's chambers.

Magee lawyers handed over a check for former secretary Donna Kovacs, who was present to sign the agreement.

Kovacs sued her former employer, charging she was wrongfully terminated in 2004, in violation of a state whistleblower law, for raising questions about recordkeeping and quality of patient care.

The hospital contended Kovacs violated patient confidentiality by improperly accessing and printing patient records.

Though a jury trial was halted in mid-November because of an apparent settlement, the negotiations later broke down. Yesterday, all parties appeared visibly relieved the matter was settled.

Records show that after Kovacs was terminated a little over four years ago, hospital officials challenged her eligibility to collect unemployment benefits, arguing her firing was justified.

In a 2005 hearing before a state referee, hospital officials contended they had evidence Kovacs violated patient confidentiality. The hearing officer, however, concluded the hospital failed to prove its case and substantiate charges of "willful misconduct." A state unemployment review board adopted the referee's findings.

Magee appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, which upheld the board's decision. In a May 2005 decision, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman concluded benefits could not be withheld "on the basis of hearsay alone" and noted the hospital's sole witness "had no firsthand knowledge of any inappropriate behavior" by Kovacs.

Though terms of yesterday's agreement were not disclosed, some details emerged in a court hearing last week and a brief order Strassburger issued. The judge ruled the agreement would not include a provision Magee sought to limit Kovacs' testimony about alleged violations of state and federal law at the hospital in two pending whistleblower lawsuits. The judge concluded that would force Kovacs to lie.

Also in dispute were provisions UPMC sought to bar Kovacs from employment at any of its facilities, even those it might later acquire.

Magee lawyers yesterday said they would drop an appeal of Strassburger's order filed last week with state Superior Court. Kovacs' lawyer, Vicki Kuftic Horne, agreed to drop sanctions motions against Magee and its lawyers.

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