Not What the Doctor Ordered
Posted on May 24, 2012 by Stacy Gabriel
Jury Punishes Hospital for Bullying and Harassment of Female Employee
Today’s guest blog post author is Stacy Gabriel, founder of Gabriel & Ashworth, PLLC, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based law firm that represents management on a wide variety of employment related matters. For nearly 20 years, Ms. Gabriel has advised employers on complying with state and federal employment laws and defended employers against employment claims before state and federal agencies and in court. She also regularly serves as a neutral third party personnel investigator and hearing officer for private and public entities.
Eye-popping. That’s the only way to describe the recent $168 million awarded to a California woman in a sexual harassment and retaliation case. The woman, Ani Chopourian, worked as a physician assistant (“PA”) at a Sacramento hospital. She had repeatedly complained to hospital management about the crude and boorish sexual comments and behavior displayed by the surgeons and other medical staff, as well as patient care concerns. Ms. Chopourian’s complaints fell on deaf ears. She was terminated days after her final complaint. Although the hospital claimed she was terminated for poor performance, the jury didn’t buy it. To add insult to injury, after Ms. Chopourian was terminated and secured another PA job with a medical group that saw patients at the hospital, the hospital revoked her hospital privileges. This decision forced her new employer to terminate her employment and prevented her from getting another PA position in the community. Not surprisingly, the hospital’s actions infuriated the jury. The $168 million award – that included $125 million in punitive damages – was clearly meant to punish the hospital for what the jury perceived as vindictive and mean-spirited treatment of Ms. Chopourian.
This case underscores what any responsible employer should already know. Take employee complaints of harassing and unprofessional behavior seriously. No one should be able to get away with this type of conduct, whether the CEO, a highly acclaimed surgeon, or your most productive sales employee. And, for gosh sake, think carefully (and consult with HR) before taking any negative personnel action against an employee who complains about this type of behavior shortly after a complaint is made, unless you have clear and overwhelming evidence of improper conduct. Employers who forget these basic principles may have to answer to a jury one day.