Suspended surgery head files $18.9 million claim against University of Arizona

2014-03-26T00:00:00Z 2014-03-26T00:16:03Z Suspended surgery head files $18.9 million claim against University of ArizonaBy Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The suspended head of the University of Arizona’s surgery department has filed an $18.96 million notice of claim against his employers. A notice of claim precedes a lawsuit.

Dr. Rainer Gruessner’s claim names the UA College of Medicine and the Arizona Board of Regents and cites breach of contract, defamation and deprivation of civil rights. The money amount is a calculation of potential future earnings Gruessner and his lawyers say he has lost as a result of what his claim calls an unlawful suspension as well as compensation for the damage to his reputation.

Officials of both the UA and the Board of Regents would not comment on Tuesday.

If the UA reinstates him as head of surgery and pays his attorneys’ fees, Gruessner will drop the claim, his document says. So far, Gruessner has paid nearly $250,000 in legal costs, the claim says.

“This is not about money. Dr. Gruessner wants nothing more than to repair his falsely tarnished reputation,” said his lawyer, Kraig J. Marton. “To do that, he wants his job back.”

Gruessner had filed a separate whistle-blower complaint against the UA on Jan. 9, saying administrators retaliated against him for exposing serious problems with transplant record-keeping.

The UA has refused to consider the whistle-blower complaint, which is why Gruessner filed the latest action, Marton wrote in the notice of claim, filed March 14. The document was provided to the Arizona Daily Star this week after a public-records request.

Gruessner, a transplant surgeon hired from the University of Minnesota in 2007, was placed on administrative leave with pay in September after an accusation was made that he had either altered liver transplant records or ordered others to alter them. No patient harm was alleged, and Gruessner’s skill as a surgeon was not questioned.

The surgeon was banned from going to the hospital campus without a security escort.

Denying any wrongdoing, Gruessner filed a request for a preliminary injunction against his employers in Pima County Superior Court in November asking for his job back. That action did not ask for any money.

The surgeon has since received a notice of termination from University Physicians Healthcare (UPH), which staffs the UA Medical Center with physicians from the UA. The UA, which employs Gruessner as a tenured professor of surgery and immunology, then sent him a letter saying it was going to begin the termination process.

On March 7, Pima County Superior Court Judge Carmine Cornelio dismissed Gruessner’s case against the UA. He also denied Gruessner’s request to UPH for reinstatement. But Cornelio also found that UPH had denied Gruessner due process before terminating him and ordered an independent hearing where Gruessner can argue his case.

Of significance to Gruessner and his lawyers, Cornelio found a “substantial likelihood” that the accusations of record-altering “may not be found to be entirely accurate.”

In addition to being surgery head, Gruessner was the surgical director of the UA Medical Center’s transplant program.

The notice of claim says the UA’s actions against Gruessner “appear to have been orchestrated by the now-former dean of the College of Medicine. Now that he is no longer dean, Dr. Gruessner is hopeful that he and the university can reconcile,” the notice says.

Gruessner’s initial civil action contended that his suspension occurred in an atmosphere of intimidation created under former UA College of Medicine Dean Dr. Steve Goldschmid.

Goldschmid, who had declined to comment on the pending litigation, stepped down from the dean’s position on March 3 to take another position with the UA Health Network, which is the largest nonprofit health entity in Southern Arizona. The network includes both UA Medical Center hospitals: the university campus (formerly called University Medical Center) and the south campus (formerly UPH/Kino). The network also includes dozens of clinics, several health plans and UPH. Goldschmid is no longer on the board of directors for the network.

The new interim medical school dean is Dr. Joe G.N. “Skip” Garcia, a physician-scientist who came to the UA from the University of Illinois in September to take the position of senior vice president for health sciences.

Before his suspension, Gruessner brought stability to a historically troubled department. He more than doubled the number of surgeons, added new transplant services and rebuilt Southern Arizona’s lone top-level trauma center for people with life-threatening injuries.

Under Gruessner’s direction, the hospital offered both adult and pediatric kidney and liver transplants, as well as heart, lung, islet cell, intestine and pancreas transplants. The hospital has since performed significantly fewer transplants and has closed its islet cell and intestine transplant programs.

About two dozen people were waiting for islet cell transplants at the time of the closure, Gruessner testified in court. The heart, lung, and pediatric kidney and liver transplant programs are currently inactive, though a new heart and lung transplant surgeon was recently hired.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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