Sask. nurse who was disciplined over Facebook comments wins court appeal

October 7, 2020
Sask. nurse who was disciplined over Facebook comments wins court appeal

Saskatchewan’s highest court has ruled in favour of a nurse who was disciplined after she complained on Facebook about the care her grandfather had received in a long-term care facility.

In a decision delivered Tuesday, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal set aside a decision by the province’s Registered Nurses Association that found Carolyn Strom guilty of unprofessional conduct. 

The court also set aside a decision by the association’s discipline committee to impose a fine and costs, totalling $26,000, on Strom, who is from Prince Albert.

She said she is relieved, and looking forward to moving on and focusing on her family and life without the case hanging over her head. 

She’s waited over a year for a decision in the appeal hearing, which took place in September 2019. Strom says it has been a difficult wait, but she felt some optimism. 

“I remember feeling hopeful, but also scared because we had so much bad news leading up to it. We just kept getting pushed down. And I was just like … ‘no, this isn’t the right decision. It can’t be.’ And so I just pushed forward and hoped that somebody would understand and get it right,” said Strom. 

“After leaving that courtroom last September, that was the first time I remember feeling this. That is the first time in four years that I felt understood.”

5-year fight

Strom was off-duty when she aired her concerns on Facebook in 2015, a few weeks after her grandfather’s death. In her Facebook post, she said staff at St. Joseph’s Integrated Health Centre in the town of Macklin, about 225 kilometres west of Saskatoon, needed to do a better job of looking after elderly patients.

The lawyer for the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association argued that Strom personally attacked an identifiable group without attempting to get all the facts about her grandfather’s care.

Carolyn Strom, left, arrives at the Court of Appeal in Regina on Sept. 17, 2019. On Oct. 6, 2020, the Court of Appeal overturned a decision that found her guilty of professional misconduct. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

In 2016, she was found guilty of professional misconduct by the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and $25,000 to cover the cost of the tribunal.

After the association’s decision, she received support from the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, as well as nurses and civil liberties groups across the country.

“Once I understood what this case meant … once it was past being just about me, I didn’t want someone else to have to go through the same thing. Because it’s been rough,” Strom said. 

She appealed the association’s decision to the province’s Court of Queen’s Bench, but that appeal was dismissed in 2018.

Strom says she continued to fight the decision because she wanted nurses to be able to talk about, and advocate for, better care for family members publicly and in a respectful manner.

“You should be able to properly advocate for family members, regardless of whether you’re a health-care member.

“And I felt that if this decision went wrong, it would actually hurt people who have health-care members as family members. because they would have to be a little more careful and not express concerns for fear of of punishment.”

Appeal court Justice Brian Barrington-Foote wrote in his decision that Strom’s freedom of expression was unjustifiably infringed, and she had a right to criticize the care her grandfather received.

The judge ruled that criticism of the health-care system is in the public interest, and when it comes from front-line workers it can bring positive change.

The appeal court said Tuesday that it makes no finding with regard to the care Strom’s grandfather received at St. Joseph’s.

CBC News has reached out to the Registered Nurses Association for comment.

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