Three years ago, Barbara Peterson walked out of Woodwinds Hospital in Woodbury with more than 200 pages of confidential patient files.

On that much, everyone agrees.

Now those files are at the heart of a federal lawsuit, in which Peterson accuses the hospital of trying to cover up evidence of medical misconduct.

Peterson, who was a patient advocate at Woodwinds, claims that she was ordered to destroy notes and e-mails about incidents that could damage the hospital's reputation -- including an allegation that a doctor was drunk while delivering a baby. She says she took the documents home to protect them.

The hospital says that her version of events "simply did not happen." And it accuses Peterson of violating patient privacy by walking off with -- and refusing to return -- hospital records. Woodwinds fired her in 2010 before the missing documents came to light.

Exactly what's in those files remains a closely guarded secret. For now, a federal judge in St. Paul has ruled that only the attorneys for both sides may see them.

But the case files paint two contradictory pictures: One, of an employee who was so upset by the pressure to destroy potential evidence that she attempted suicide. The other, of a troubled woman who made unfounded allegations against her employer after abandoning her job.

According to her lawsuit, Peterson had been working at Woodwinds for six years when she was first approached about altering the files. As a patient advocate, her job was to act as a liaison between the medical staff and patients and their families, and to investigate grievances about the care they received.

'Unfavorable' or 'irrelevant'?

In August 2009, she claims, her supervisor told her to go through several months of grievance files and "remove and destroy" any information "that might be unfavorable to the hospital in any future negligence case," according to her lawsuit.

The supervisor, Peterson said, told her that the hospital "could not afford another 'WG' case" -- a reference to a large settlement paid to the family of a former patient, partly based on information in the hospital's grievance files.

Peterson said she also was told to remove documents that might make Woodwinds look bad during an upcoming site visit by a national hospital accrediting agency, known as the Joint Commission.

According to the hospital, her supervisor, Cathy Einberger, did talk to Peterson about the grievance files, but not about covering anything up.

"Ms. Einberger simply instructed [Peterson] to remove duplicative or irrelevant information for the files" because they "were in disarray," according to the hospital's court filing.

Peterson, who served on the ethics committee for the hospital's parent company, HealthEast, said she was "distraught over the ethical and legal implications." But fearing that someone else would destroy them if she refused, she said she removed the documents from the hospital's files -- 233 pages, according to her lawyer -- and took them home "to preserve and protect" them.

Peterson accused other hospital officials of instructing her to purge or omit damning information, according to her lawsuit. She cited one instance in January 2010, when she was investigating a woman's complaint about the obstetrician who had delivered her baby. Peterson said two nurses had reported that the doctor was "inebriated and smelled of alcohol" during the delivery. Peterson said she was told not to document that information or share it with the patient.

The lawsuit states that such an order to tamper with documents would constitute "potential fraud" and violate state law, which makes it a felony to destroy records to keep them from being used in court.

The hospital vehemently denies her allegations.

"We have conducted a thorough investigation and determined clearly that Ms. Peterson was never asked to destroy patient grievance records," the hospital said in a written statement on Friday. "The investigation also confirmed that no patient grievance records were destroyed."

Pamela Schwarz, the director of Customer Advocacy at HealthEast, declined to talk about the lawsuit, but she said that her staff, which includes patient advocates in every hospital, is aggressive about investigating complaints.

"We're the patient's voice, so we don't sugarcoat a lot of stuff," she said.

"I can tell you that the advocates want the patient's story to be heard, and sometimes it's a hard thing to hear. But that's our role."

She noted that if a patient complains about a doctor's behavior, the findings may be kept confidential because they involve personnel matters. "I can't necessarily tell them, 'Here's what will happen to that person,'" she said. But, she added, "We take all of those concerns very seriously."

Missing documents

Peterson said the stress took a heavy toll on her. She fell into a severe depression and attempted suicide in February 2010, and began a medical leave of absence.

The hospital said that it fired Peterson in June 2010, when she refused to return to her job after her leave expired.

A year ago, she sued the hospital for infliction of emotional distress and violating her rights under the federal Family Medical Leave Act.

But it wasn't until September that the hospital learned, in a court filing, that Peterson had taken documents home.

That led to a flurry of e-mails and phone calls, as hospital lawyers demanded the records back.

"I am astonished that you have kept them this long but you must return them now," a HealthEast attorney wrote to Peterson's lawyer in October.

Peterson refused.

"Obviously, my client does not trust what they may do with the documents if they get them," said her lawyer, Richard A. Williams Jr., of St. Paul.

In November, Federal Magistrate Judge Franklin Noel ruled that Peterson could keep the originals until the case is over. Both sides have been told to be ready to go to trial in June.

Now, Williams says, Peterson is looking for work and waiting for her day in court.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384