Fresno hospital fired this whistle-blower in messy heart doctor drama. He wins $4.5 million

James Robillard leaves Fresno County Superior Court after testifying Monday, March 12, 2018, in the trial of Fresno heart surgeon Pervaiz Chaudhry.
James Robillard leaves Fresno County Superior Court after testifying Monday, March 12, 2018, in the trial of Fresno heart surgeon Pervaiz Chaudhry. Fresno Bee file

A whistle-blower at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno who reported misdeeds by a heart surgeon only to be fired has been awarded $4.5 million by an arbitrator.

James Robillard, 66, was fired four years ago after being labeled a “mole” who allegedly looked up patient medical records so he could feed information to attorneys suing the hospital for botched heart surgeries by Dr. Pervaiz Chaudhry.

But in an interim decision Tuesday, arbitrator John A. Flaherty of Santa Clara, a retired judge, said Robillard was legally entitled to view patient records as part of his job description.

The arbitrator said the hospital must pay $1.5 million to Robillard for injury to his reputation, $2.5 million for emotional distress and $445,000 in lost wages. The arbitration decision is binding and can’t be appealed.

In a statement, the hospital said it did nothing wrong.

“This outcome is surprising and unfortunate,” said Michelle Von Tersch, vice president of communication and public affairs for Community Medical Centers, the entity that owns Community Regional Medical Center. “Community was acting according to our policies and consistent with federal and state laws to protect patient health information – and we will continue to do so.”

The decision becomes final at the end of January after the arbitrator decides on attorney’s fees. Then the hospital has 20 days to pay.

Dr. Pervaiz Chaudhry exits a Fresno courtroom earlier this year during his medical malpractice civil trial. Pablo Lopez Fresno Bee file

Attorney Andrew Jones of Fresno represented Robillard and said his client did the right thing in blowing the whistle on Chaudhry to state medical authorities.

“He’s a hero,” Jones said. “He put his own livelihood at risk.”

The 33-page decision lays out what happened between Robillard and Community Regional Medical Center.

Robillard was employed as a perfusionist, the person who operates a heart-lung machine.

In 2012, he was the perfusionist for the open heart surgery of Silvino Perez that ended badly when Chaudhry left the operating room while the patient’s chest remained open, leaving him in a permanent coma.

(Perez’s family sued Chaudry for malpractice. In March, jurors found Chaudhry’s departure to be malicious, oppressive or fraudulent, and ordered Chaudhry to pay $68 million. After the verdict, he reached a confidential settlement in the case.)

A year earlier, Robillard had learned that Chaudhry was “drunk off his ass” at a heart surgery, and had crudely propositioned a nurse, the arbitrator’s report states.

Robillard reported him to the California Medical Board and the California Department of Public Health, which fined the hospital $75,000 for the Perez surgery. Chaudhry received a two-week suspension. When Chaudhry eventually found out, he barred Robillard from working with him, hurting Robillard’s earnings.

Chaudhry was one of the top five busiest surgeons in California, bringing in an estimated $60 million in revenue annually to Community Regional Medical Center and Fresno Heart Hospital, the arbitrator’s decision states.

In August 2014, after three malpractice lawsuits against Chaudhry were filed, the hospital knew from several sources that Robillard had been a whistle-blower. Audits of his access to patient records were ordered. He was placed on administrative leave and was fired in December 2014.

He never worked in Fresno again and had to give up his perfusionist certification due to lack of hours worked, his attorney said. Robillard is now retired.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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