P.A. nurse wins appeal in misconduct case

Court of appeal quashes disciplinary decision arising from Carolyn Strom's Facebook post in unanimous decision.

Carolyn Strom speaks to reporters in Prince Albert Tuesday following the release of the decision in favour of her appeal of a disciplinary action after more than five and a half years as her lawyer, Marcus Davies, looks on. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Zak Vescera/Postmedia network

Saskatchewan nurse Carolyn Strom has won a landmark appeal against her regulatory body in a years-long case that delved into questions about the limits on a nursing professional’s freedom of expression.

A Saskatchewan Court of Appeal panel ruled on Tuesday morning that a Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association discipline committee unjustly infringed Strom’s right to freedom of expression when it found her guilty of professional misconduct over a 2015 Facebook post in which she raised concerns about the care her deceased grandfather received in his final days of life.

“Nurses, doctors, lawyers and other professionals are also sisters and brothers, and sons and daughters. They are dancers and athletes, coaches and bloggers, and community and political volunteers. They communicate with friends and others on social media. They have voices in all of these roles. The professional bargain does not require that they fall silent,” the decision stated.

Strom says she’s happy to leave it behind her.

“It’s been a hard five years. Mentally, emotionally. Especially when you know in your gut, you know in your heart that you were doing the right thing for the right reasons,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to looking forward. I’ve had this on my back for five and half years. I’m looking forward to being present to my daughters and my husband.”

Case spanned years

Strom’s grandfather had been living at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Macklin. In a post on her personal Facebook page, Strom praised and criticized the quality of his care, saying it was “often subpar,” and expressed concern about the quality of long-term care in the province as a whole.

She later tweeted the post to the health minister and the leader of the NDP Opposition.

Staff at St. Joseph’s complained, prompting an investigation by the SRNA into whether Strom’s post had violated its code of ethics by complaining about other health care workers to the general public, rather than staff.

A 2016 committee found her guilty of professional misconduct and fined her $1,000, plus $25,000 in costs. The investigation, as of 2018, cost more than $150,000.

Strom appealed the decision to the Court of Queen’s Bench, where it was dismissed, then brought it to the province’s appeal court.

In the meantime, the case got international attention.

“This isn’t a Saskatchewan case or a Canada case. This became a North American case, and frankly global,” said Saskatchewan Union of Nurses President Tracy Zambory, whose union acted as one of three interveners on Strom’s behalf.

She was relieved to see the ruling, Zambory said.

“The SRNA was very heavy handed and far-reaching, thinking that they could somehow have implication in our freedom of speech, our democracy. There were a lot of things as stake here.” 

Strom’s lawyer, Marcus Davies, says his client never gave up even as the case wound its way through multiple courts.

“Carolyn was the wrong person to try and muzzle.” Davies said. 

SRNA studying decision

In an email to Postmedia, an SRNA spokesperson said the regulatory body was still studying the decision and its implications and would not immediately have comment.

The Court of Appeal was highly critical of the committee’s decision, arguing it failed to acknowledge that Strom had also praised staff working in long-term care. The decision would effectively deny registered nurses the ability to use “their unique knowledge and professional credibility to publicly advance important issues relating to long-term care of the sort raised by Ms. Strom,” the court wrote.

While members of professional and regulatory bodies have to abide by certain rules including “requirements related to civility,” the committee did not fairly balance those requirements with Strom’s right to freedom of expression, it ruled.

“Ms. Strom posted as a granddaughter who had lost one grandparent and was concerned for the future of another. That fact was front and center for a reader of the posts.”

It is still possible the SRNA could attempt to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, but there’s no guarantee that court would agree to hear the case.

Davies, does not believe it likely, saying the Saskatchewan court’s decision is “very, very strongly worded” in his client’s favour.

“I think Carolyn Strom can go back to being Carolyn Strom tomorrow.” he said.

Strom says she’s looking forward to focusing full-time on her work as a public health nurse and providing care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She says she’s grateful to everyone who has supported her thus far, particularly the people she has never met.

“No one knew my story 100 per cent, and they believed me. And they believed in me. And that’s humbling.” she said.