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Doctor wins wrongful termination suit

Despite only finding $1,000 in actual damages, a jury has awarded six figures in punitive damages to a doctor who claimed wrongful termination from a Springfield hospital.

“She had complained over the years about different practices that she took issue with, namely situations where she felt like there were consults or testing that she thought was unnecessary, but also situations where she felt like patients weren’t being given a full and complete picture of how things happened in the hospital as part of their treatment,” said Benjamin Stringer of the law firm Hall Ansley.

Stringer represented Shanti Yerra, a physician who was terminated from Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities in January 2013 after working there since 1997.

In early 2012, Yerra disagreed with another physician over a consultation that had been ordered on a Medicare patient, Stringer said. Yerra believed the action to be duplicative.

Yerra reported the issue to the appropriate department of the hospital and even raised the possibility of taking up the matter with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Stringer said.

“What we learned as part of the case was that after that call was made, there were a series of emails exchanged between the section chair, the department chair and human resources where they started examining her care and treatment of patients and then peer reviewing her care and treatment of patients,” Stringer said.

Yerra’s petition contended that the hospital began “a pattern of harassment and retaliation” against her.

“Furthermore, Dr. Yerra was known to Mercy management and administration as having previously objected to unnecessary treatment and billing,” the suit alleged.

Yerra never made a formal report to CMS, but her claim was brought under the state’s common law banning retaliation when an employee acts in a manner encouraged by public policy and hence fell under the designation of a “protected report,” Stringer said.

The hospital contended that Yerra had a history of problems, he said.

“The defendants argued that Dr. Yerra had had issues related to her performance or her behavior going back for years,” he said. “They tried to bring up things that sometimes had occurred 10 years ago to argue that they had a basis for terminating her.”

However, Stringer said Yerra’s scores on surveys were high and none of the complaints had occurred within the past four or five years.

“She met criteria for bonuses that are given out by Mercy for hitting patient satisfaction marks,” said Stringer. “We also pointed out that she had not been peer reviewed at any time during her employment until after she made this report.”

Stringer said he introduced testimony from a fellow physician who believed she had been constructively discharged by the hospital after expressing concerns related to treatment there. The other doctor lost her medical directorship and, like Yerra, had been put on a performance improvement plan and placed under peer review, he said.

“She really felt like when they started doing that to her that she had no choice but to resign,” he said of Yerra’s colleague.

Yerra also recorded a meeting in which hospital management allegedly suggested that, if she did not sign a release agreement, they might move to suspend her privileges, which would trigger a report of Yerra to the National Practitioner Data Bank, Stringer said.

Although the original petition included a count for breach of contract, the court’s judgment said the plaintiff chose to submit just the wrongful termination claim.

The jury found only $1,000 in actual damages but $750,000 in punitive damages.

“She was able to obtain work so quickly after her termination that she really didn’t have any financial losses,” Stringer said.

Frank Evans and Amanda Cochran of Lathrop & Gage represented the hospital. They did not return requests for comment.

$751,000

Wrongful termination

Venue: Greene County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 1331-CC00133/March 4, 2016

Judge: Michael Cordonnier

Caption: Shanti Yerra, M.D. v. Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Benjamin Stringer and Timothy Ricker of Hall Ansley, Springfield

Defendant’s Attorneys: Frank Evans and Amanda Cochran of Lathrop & Gage, Springfield

Order Reprints

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