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Health Department Whistleblower Files Suit Against Mecklenburg County

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MECKLENBURG COUNTY
Dell Adams worked at the county's health clinic on Beatties Ford Road for 20 years before he was fired. Adams is now suing the county for wrongful termination.

A man who was fired after raising serious allegations of health and safety concerns at the Mecklenburg County Health Department is now suing the county.

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Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
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WFAE
Dell Adams

In his 63-page lawsuit, Dell Adams argues he faced retaliation and was wrongfully terminated after bringing attention to the violations, which included revelations that hundreds of women had not been notified of abnormal pap smear results.

In an interview with WFAE, Adams laid out why he filed the suit in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

"I believe I was falsely terminated for concerns and issues that I brought up to county commissioners, county manager, health directors, medical directors," he said.

Those concerns began, he says, when the county took full control of the health department from Carolinas Health Systems in 2013. Adams was working there as a phlebotomist.

He said wait times grew long, staff shortages went unaddressed, and ill-trained employees mishandled patient specimens, leaving them unrefrigerated, mislabeled, or strewn on the floor.

"It was sad," he said, "witnessing some of the things that took place inside that health department. You just know it's not professional, ethical at all. It just makes you cringe ... knowing that this could be our loved ones."

He filed a complaint with Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2014, which penalized the county for violations it found.

Then, beginning in 2016, Adams began sending emails to his supervisor and county leaders raising concerns about conditions at the clinic, but he said those concerns were either ignored, dismissed or covered up.

Frustrated, Adams reached out to The Charlotte Observer with allegations that the health department was woefully behind on notifying women who had abnormal pap smear results. It's critical that these women are notified quickly, because they could be at high risk of cervical cancer, which can be prevented it caught in time.

The story was explosive. As a later audit found, as many as 385 women had not been properly notified of abnormal results since 2014, and in the ensuing fallout, Health Director Marcus Plescia resigned and a new director, Gibbie Harris, was chosen.

But still, Adams says, the serious problems persisted. In March 2018, he again went to the media, this time to WSOC as an anonymous source. The next day, he was placed on paid suspension. Three weeks later, Health Director Gibbie Harris informed him he had been fired.

It's demoralizing. It's depressing. But at the same time, you got to stand for something.

"They said insubordination. They said I was being insubordinate," he said. "And failure to meet my superior."

Adams' attorney, Jennifer Spyker with the Charlotte-based Maloney Law Firm, says the county must be held accountable for ignoring her client's complaints, endangering staff and patients, and then exacting retribution when Adams brought his concerns to the public, as was his right.

"Employees deserve to have safe working conditions, they deserve to have their concerns heard by management when they bring them forward without fear of retaliation, and the patients deserve to have proper test results," Spyker said.

The suit says Adams is entitled to his old job, back pay, benefits and other compensation.

Maloney Law Firm has a history of winning wrongful termination cases against local government. They represented Crystal Eschert, who successfully sued the City of Charlotte in 2017 over her termination.

Adams, meanwhile, says his firing has been a blow to him and his family, but he believes what he did was right.

"It's demoralizing, you know? It's saddening. It's depressing. But at the same time, you got to stand for something," he said. "Even though I was terminated, I still believe I did what was best for Mecklenburg County."

A spokesperson for the county declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation.