Earlier this month, the first court hearing took place for a fired Kenosha SANE nurse who is suing the Kenosha DA’s office. The courtroom was full of attorneys – three of them being paid by tax dollars. Rebecca Rodriguez said she lost her job because of a false letter that the Kenosha DA’s Office sent to her employer, Aurora Healthcare. The long-time nurse believes that Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Smathers conspired with Rodriguez’s co-worker Deanna Grundl, to make up lies about Rodriguez to get her terminated. Smathers and Grundl are friends and met when Smathers worked in Sheboygan County as a prosecutor. Smathers took a demotion and pay cut and came to work in Kenosha. On June 9, 2023, Rodriguez filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit court naming as defendants, prosecutor Alexandra Smathers, Aurora Health Care, Inc., Rodriguez’s former co-worker, Deanna Grundl, who got her fired, the State of Wisconsin, Kenosha County, and up to ten unknown co-conspirators.
On Thursday, November 9, 2023, there were no rulings or serious debates. It was a scheduling conference to determine when legal briefs were due. Neither Smathers nor the other defendants denied any of the accusations – instead, all defendants made complex legal arguments for why the case should be dismissed, citing failure to provide of a notice of claim, to sovereign immunity.
The Wisconsin Legislature passed a new law in 2018 that allows defendants to temporarily stop proceedings when they file a motion to dismiss, even removing the need to actually respond to the complaint. Only Kenosha County filed an answer in this case. The prosecutors don’t work for the County, but for the State of Wisconsin. One victim/witness advocate, however, is implicated in this suit, and she works for the county.
Most of you reading this may not have heard of 46-year-old Rebecca Rodriguez. She has been married for 14 years and has six children. She loves swimming, cooking, spending time with her family, and fishing. She was born and raised in Kenosha and graduated from Bradford High School. If you work in the medical or criminal justice system, you probably have heard of her becuase of her important vocation. Rodriguez has performed over 1,000 sexual assault nurse exams (SANE) in her long career as a sexual assault nurse. Her work has been praised by her superiors, prosecutors, law enforcement leaders, politicians and colleagues. Rodriguez was even esteemed by Kenosha County DA Mike Graveley – he asked for her endorsement for his campaign. Her work, and the work of others like her, are crucial to successfully prosecution those that sexually assault woman. Rodriguez loved her job and considered it her “dream job.” Rodriguez tells KCE she loved her job and was very good at it. Her superiors were very happy with her accomplishments and promoted her to the position of Forensic program Nursing Supervisor. Her accolades and community works are too numerous to list – you can read them here. She managed a team of SANE nurses. That’s why she was beyond surprised and blindsided when she was terminated from Aurora Health Care on May 20, 2022.
She would learn that she lost her job because 11 days earlier, on May 9, 2022, a Kenosha prosecutor sent an email with very serious allegations of misconduct, along with some seemingly petty allegations about Rodriguez. Rodriguez and her attorney say that not only are the allegations false, but they can easily be proven to be false.
Kenosha Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Smathers begins the letter with “I should note that I have not personally worked with [Mrs. Rodriguez].” She then makes a series of very serious accusations about her. She started by questioning her nursing license, saying “First, it is my understanding she was not a registered nurse when she began her career as a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) and was not a registered nurse for some time. This obviously caused credibility concerns at trial.” She then went on to document cases in which Smathers says that Rodriguez gave bad information in court that resulted in a person being found not guilty. Smathers also complained to Aurora that Rodriguez claimed to be a Facebook friend with a member of the DA’s office, but “she was not.” She then accused Rodriguez of violating a patient’s HIPAA rights during a case which led to a mistrial. Finally, Smathers complained about Rodriguez wearing clothing to court that was too tight and wearing too much makeup.
Rodriguez hired Attorney James Payne last year and he served notice on the DA’s office that Rodriguez intended to sue them and seek a quarter of a million dollars plus punitive damages. In the letter, the attorney said that his client, Mrs. Rodriguez “categorically denies the statements made in the May 9, 2022 email. Smather’s email was made with no firsthand knowledge of my client…..Ms. Smathers acknowledges as much in the first paragraph of her email… It is deeply disturbing that a public official would write such an email without any knowledge or investigation of the facts.” He says the statement about Rodriguez “not being a nurse” and “not being a SANE nurse” are “patently false and can be confirmed by a thirty second search on the website for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services.” It took this author about 45 seconds to verify that Rodriguez has been a licensed nurse since 3/8/2006 and her license needs to be renewed by 2/29/2024. Rodriguez’s lawyer also denied the she violated HIPPA and said that the defendant that Smathers said was found “not guilty” was actually convicted and also easily verifiable on the Wisconsin Court Website (CCAP). “Given the nature of Mrs. Rodriguez’s employment and profession, allegations regarding her nursing credentials or concerning patient confidentiality were considered extremely serious by her employer. Ms. Smathers should know the weight and seriousness of such allegations. To author an email to Ms. Rodriguez’s employer without exercising basic fact checking or without having any first hand interaction with Ms. Rodriguez is incredibly unprofessional and reckless. ADA Smathers should know better.” He also called the complaint about the clothing and makeup “petty” saying that she has never received any complaints in her 16-year career.
“As a licensed attorney and representative of the County of Kenosha, the District Attorney’s office, Ms. Smathers should be fully aware of the need to investigate any and all claims and present a tempered, level-headed analysis of any situation. More than others, attorneys placed in the public’s trust, such as Ms. Smathers, should know of the ramifications of their actions. When Ms. Smathers wrote her email, she wrote an email not just on behalf of herself, but as an agent of the Kenosha District Attorney’s Office and government employee. Her words were given great effect by Mrs. Rodriguez’s employer – understandably so. And her untrue statements have now greatly harmed Mrs. Rodriguez who has been involuntarily separated from her employment. She has placed Mrs. Rodriguez’s career in jeopardy. As a result of Ms. Smather’s actions, Mrs. Rodriguez has legal causes of action for defamation, section 1983 deprivation of rights, tortious interference with contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.”
“Forensic nurses provide invaluable services to survivors of sexual assault and are held to the highest standards of professional conduct. When there are allegations of misconduct, we initiate a thorough internal review and take action as appropriate. Out of respect for privacy, we do not comment on personnel matters.”
Last Friday, June 9, 2023, Rodriguez filed suit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. She is being represented by The Law Offices of R.F. Wittmeyer, Ltd with offices in Northern Illinois and Kenosha. Among the causes of action are defamation, tortious interference with contract, civil conspiracy, injury to business, breach of contract – implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, alternate pleading – individual liability of Smathers, and republication.
The email, oddly was not sent to Rodriguez’s boss, but to the Aurora Forensic Nursing Coordinator in Sheboygan, Deanna Grundl. Grundl then sent the email to a Vice President at Aurora. At first, it seemed that Rodriguez’s legal team didn’t know why it went to Grundl until further investigation.
The lawsuit, obtained by KCE, reads in part, “Upon information and belief, at all times relevant, Smathers and Grundl had a relationship with each other preexisting the May 9, 2022 email. Smathers and Grundl worked for many years together on the Sexual Assault Response Team and interacted with each other in Smathers’ previous position at the Sheboygan County District Attorney’s Office.” Smathers became a lawyer in 2013 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School. She worked briefly as a prosecutor for Columbia County, WI and then for the Sheboygan County DA’s office for almost eight years where she was promoted to Deputy DA in 2020 but then was demoted in 2021 according to her Linkedin. She was then hired by DA Michael Graveley in August of 2021. Rodriguez believed that Grundl and Smathers worked in concert to harm Rodriguez. A discovered text message may confirm just that. On May 9, 2023, six minutes after Smathers sent the damaging email, Smathers texted Grundl, “And it’s away! Let me know if you need anything else from me!” to which Grundl responded, “Got it and thank you. This was very helpful in fixing this problem.”
Rodriguez and her attorney also think Aurora is also liable because they fired Rodriguez without any proper investigation into the allegations.
KCE spoke to three co-workers of Rodriguez. They all had the same things to say – Rodriguez was good at her job, compassionate, caring, hard-working and is missed by the organization’s staff.
Smathers doesn’t have to worry about her job because prosecutors are in short supply – they don’t pay well. Kenosha County DA Mike Graveley has refused to comment numerous times, but promised Smathers she would not face discipline even though he didn’t authorize the letter and knows that its contents were false. Graveley has an office policy against disciplining his staff.
KCE will follow closely this litigation. Click here to read the entire complaint.