It is generally understood that employees can bring claims for hostile environment, wrongful termination, or even “constructive discharge” – where an employee claims that an employer made working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign. What is less clearly understood is the extent of the economic damages for which a hospital or health care system may be liable in an employment-related lawsuit. Because a successful litigant in an employment case often is entitled to compensatory damages, lost wages and, in some instances, front pay, a lawsuit by a physician-employee can create the potential for large monetary damage awards. In a clear example of this fact, a Texas jury recently awarded more than $3.6 Million to an Egyptian-born physician who claimed that he was forced to resign after race-based comments from another employed physician. Nassar v. Univ. of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, N.D. Tex., No. 08-1337, jury verdict, 5/26/10.
Naiel Nassar, a U.S. citizen since 1990, was born in Egypt and attended medical school there. He then did a medical residency and a fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of California, Davis. In 2001, Nassar was hired by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW) as an Assistant Professor of infectious disease medicine. Part of Nassar’s duties required that he provide patient care at the Amelia Court clinic, an outpatient HIV/AIDS clinic affiliated with UTSW.
In 2004, UTSW hired Dr. Beth Levine as the chief of its infectious disease program. In that role, Levine directed that Nassar begin billing for the services he provided to the HIV clinic. Nassar objected to the directive, arguing that his salary for clinical services was fully funded by a federal grant, and stating that billing the patients therefore would be “double dipping.” Nassar claimed that Levine also began to “harass” him, making derogatory statement about his race and his Muslim religion, including one comment that “middle easterners were lazy.” His allegations were supported by a clinical supervisor, whose affidavit described a “disconnect between Dr. Levine’s statements and the reality of Dr. Nassar’s work.” Based on his concerns about Levine, Nassar ultimately applied for employment at Parkland Health & Hospital System in 2006. Parkland made preparations to hire Nassar, even drafting a job offer letter, but never formally hired Nassar. Nassar contended that UTSW retaliated against him by blocking the offer from Parkland. Nassar ultimately filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging discrimination and retaliation. Levine strongly disputed Nassar’s allegations, as did UTSW.
At trial, the jury was presented with only two questions: (1) Whether Nassar was constructively discharged because of his race, national origin, or religious preference; and (2) Whether UTSW retaliated against Nassar by blocking or objecting to his employment by Parkland after Nassar complained about his treatment at UTSW. After one hour of deliberations, the jury answered “Yes” to both questions. Two days after the May 24, 2010 verdict, the same jury awarded $3.2 Million in compensatory damages and $438,000 in lost back pay to Nassar. The court now will determine whether Nassar’s claim for lost front pay – which could range from $200,000 to $4 Million – should be paid as part of the award. In addition, Nassar has made a claim for attorney fees, which also will be heard by the court. UTSW has already stated that it will be appealing the verdict and the resulting judgment.
Hospital and healthcare entities that are contemplating direct hiring of physicians should take the time to read the jury instructions and verdict sheet on which the decision in the jury’s decision was based. Most notable is the court’s instruction in which it defines “constructive discharge” as a resignation from working conditions “so intolerable that a reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign.” The court goes on to point out that to prove constructive discharge, Nassar “need not show that his race, national origin, or religions preference was the sole or even the primary motivation for [UTSW’s] conduct.” He simply had to prove that his protected characteristics “played a motivating part in [UTSW’s] conduct, even though other factors may also have motivated [UTSW].
Employers, including health care entities, should ensure that supervisors and managers are trained to recognize and remedy discriminatory conduct, to assure that such conduct does not become viewed as a “motivating part” of any adverse employment action taken by the employer.