•Lawyer says whistle-blower has had to move out of Fresno to find work
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•Hospital says firing was over violation of patient confidentiality
A Fresno hospital worker who became a whistle-blower against a prominent heart surgeon has filed a lawsuit against the doctor and Community Regional Medical Center for retaliation and wrongful termination.
James Robillard, a cardiac perfusionist, said he was fired after he was identified as the person who told state health investigators that Dr. Pervaiz Chaudhry left an open-heart surgery before his patient’s chest was closed.
The alleged incident in April 2012 resulted in a $75,000 fine to Community Regional.
Robillard contends he was under legal obligation to report concerns about patient care but was fired as a result of the whistle-blowing.
The patient, Silvino Perez, 74, of Sanger, remains in a vegetative state in a Fresno nursing home, according to Jeff Mitchell, an attorney representing the family in a lawsuit against Chaudhry and Community Regional that alleges Chaudhry left an unqualified assistant to close Perez’s chest. Because it was not done properly, Perez’s heart stopped, he continued to bleed and lose oxygen, and he had to be put on life support, the suit alleges.
Perez’s mother and stepson sued in December 2013, and as part of the medical malpractice lawsuit, records were subpoenaed in June 2014 that identified Robillard as the whistle-blower, the lawsuit says. In the wake of Perez’s lawsuit, at least two other people have sued Chaudhry, accusing him of walking out of the operating room before procedures were complete — and that hospital officials knew about it.
Community Medical Centers, which operates the regional hospital, and Chaudhry deny Robillard’s allegations of retaliation and wrongful termination and said he was fired because he violated patient confidentiality laws.
Chaudhry also has denied the accusation that he left the operating room before Perez’s chest was closed. In October, he sued Robillard for defamation. In the lawsuit, the doctor said Robillard was not in the operating room when Perez’s chest was closed, and that Robillard made up the accusation in order to defame him and ruin his reputation. He had asked for $25 million in damages. The lawsuit was dismissed later in October without prejudice for strategic reasons, Chaudhry’s lawyer at that time said. Chaudhry has the option to refile.
Robillard now says his reputation has been harmed and he has suffered damages, including lost wages and benefits, and emotional distress.
“It’s had a dramatic effect on the man,” his lawyer, Andrew Jones of Fresno, said Thursday. “He’s been accused of all types of terrible things and had to leave his community to find employment.” Robillard now is working as a perfusionist in Monterey, Jones said.
According to Robillard’s lawsuit filed April 17 in Fresno County Superior Court, Chaudhry pressured Community Regional to investigate and fire him. Chaudhry threatened to sue the hospital if Robillard was not fired, and threatened to take his surgery business and that of his medical group, Valley Cardiac Surgery Medical Group, elsewhere.
The lawsuit also says that Robillard told Community Regional Medical Center that a surgeon employed by Valley Cardiac Surgery had engaged in “sexually harassing conduct” toward a 77-year-old female patient on March 17, 2014. The surgeon removed a “warming tube” from the patient, placed the tube in his surgical pants and simulated a sexual maneuver, the lawsuit says. Valley Cardiac Surgery, of whom Chaudhry is managing partner, is also a defendant in the lawsuit.
Robillard contends that Community Regional told the medical group about the complaint and that Chaudhry and the group “incited, compelled, aided and/or abetted” the hospital to retaliate against Robillard, and demanded his termination by refusing to allow him to act as a perfusionist in any operation that a group doctor was involved in. The hospital complied with the demands and fired Robillard, the lawsuit says.
On Friday, Chaudhry called the allegations “preposterous.” He and Valley Cardiac Surgery had nothing to do with Robillard’s dismissal, he said. Robillard was fired for violating patients’ privacy rights. “He was snooping around and calling the patients.”
Chaudhry said he was not the surgeon in the alleged March 17 incident, but that it was fully investigated and no patient rights were found to be violated.
Robillard has attempted to assassinate his character, Chaudhry said, because he is under the false impression that the doctor caused him to lose a perfusionist contract with Community Medical Centers. A perfusionist is a health care professional who operates a heart-lung machine during cardiac surgery and other surgeries that require cardiopulmonary bypass.
Chaudhry said he actually tried to persuade Community to keep the contract with Robillard’s group and was successful in getting them to name Robillard as director of perfusion.
Jim Goodman, Chaudhry’s lawyer, said Community had no choice but to fire Robillard for violating patient privacy. He said Robillard “has unmitigated gall” to make allegations “when he’s brought this all on himself.”
Community Medical Centers said Robillard’s allegations are meritless, and that he was fired because he looked at patient records in violation of confidentiality laws.
“Community will vigorously dispute the events alleged in Mr. Robillard’s imaginative complaint, which is completely without merit,” said Michelle Von Tersch, vice president of corporate communications. “The pertinent facts are that Mr. Robillard deliberately accessed patient medical records for no legitimate patient-care reason and in violation of patient confidentiality laws and policies. The state has determined that Mr. Robillard inappropriately accessed the Protected Health Information of two CMC patients. Mr. Robillard’s termination of employment was therefore proper and consistent with Community Medical Centers’ policy.”
According to Robillard’s lawsuit, he was told by Community Medical Centers, which operates Community Regional, that he had been singled out for investigation because he had been revealed as the whistle-blower in the Perez case. The hospital looked only at files of patients of Chaudhry’s who had been discharged, the lawsuit says.
In the past, Robillard and other providers of medical services had reviewed patient files to check on patient outcomes for research and education and other reasons, the lawsuit says. He had never been warned or questioned or disciplined before.
The lawsuit says that in late September 2014, Community sent notices to Robillard’s patients advising them that patient confidentiality had been violated in respect to their patient files. The notices implied that the patients might want to check their credit report and that the person who had accessed the files was “unauthorized” to do so and that “disciplinary actions will be taken.”
Robillard was not named in the notices sent to patients, the lawsuit says, but in he was identified as the whistle-blower in an Oct. 15 story in the Fresno Bee about Chaudhry’s defamation suit against him and again in a story when the lawsuit was dismissed on Oct. 22.
On Thursday, Jones said Robillard “did not inappropriately access any patient information to which he was not authorized.”
His actions in reporting patient care concerns and possible elder abuse are protected under labor and health and safety laws that protect whistle-blowers, according to the lawsuit.
Jones said by reporting concerns about patient care, Robillard “stood everything to lose and nothing to gain, and he’s lost everything.”
Robillard is seeking damages in excess of $25,000, including punitive damages, and $10,000 in penalties.