His former employers offered to retract allegations of unethical conduct and issue a public apology, but former University of Arizona surgery chair Dr. Rainer Gruessner says that action came too late.
Gruessner has filed a 399-page lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court that seeks an unspecified amount of money. Among other things, it calls for punitive damages, “sufficient to punish those defendants for their malicious and tortuous conduct, and to discourage similar wrongful conduct from other persons similarly situated.”
The lawsuit, which follows an $18.9 million notice of claim he filed in March, says events that have unfolded since he was suspended with pay more than a year ago have damaged his career and reputation.
“The pain of losing such a tremendous career at or near its prime has been excruciating,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit names as defendants the University of Arizona Health Network, the Arizona Board of Regents, University Physicians Healthcare, the UA Medical Center, the UA College of Medicine, UA Health Network CEO Dr. Michael Waldrum and UA Vice President of Academic Affairs Andrew Comrie.
Comrie, the UA and the Arizona Board of Regents declined comment, saying they do not comment on pending litigation. Waldrum also declined comment.
An attorney for University Physicians Healthcare (UPH), which is part of the UA Health Network, said UPH has been negotiating with Gruessner for several months, but that he had rejected its offers. Lawyer Amy J. Gittler said UPH agreed to all of the recommendations put forward by an independent review panel in August. Those recommendations included an offer of a public apology. UPH further agreed to pay $350,000 to cover Gruessner’s attorneys’ fees, she said.
“Further litigation is Dr. Gruessner’s choice, and UPH looks forward to presenting its side in court,” she wrote in an email.
The legal action also names Dr. Steve Goldschmid in both his official capacity as the former dean of the UA College of Medicine and as an individual, “for any action he took that was outside the scope of his authority.” Goldschmid did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit cites breach of contract, defamation and violation of Gruessner’s civil rights.
Gruessner took over the UA Medical Center’s then-struggling surgery department in 2007 and rebuilt its surgery and transplant programs. He remained on the job until September 2013, when he was suspended amid an administrative dispute and banned from the hospital campus without a security escort.
According to Gruessner, the administrative dispute stemmed from professional animosity with Goldschmid, who was then dean of the UA College of Medicine. Goldschmid did not respond to a request for comment. Gruessner has long said that senior leaders retaliated against him because he questioned their competence.
The dispute involved an accusation that Gruessner had altered a transplant records database. Three months after suspending him, UPH terminated Gruessner. Gruessner subsequently filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit, as well as a whistle-blower complaint.
An independent panel of three prominent transplant surgeons from outside Arizona made a finding that the accusation about changing the transplant records was untrue, and that Gruessner was wrongfully dismissed.
University Physicians Healthcare, which staffs the UA Medical Center with physicians from the UA, decided in September to uphold the panel’s findings and agreed to retract its allegations to the Arizona Medical Board of unethical conduct by Gruessner. It also offered to publicly apologize to him.
But Gruessner’s Phoenix-based attorney, Kraig Marton, said UPH never did retract its complaint with the Arizona Medical Board, “instead trying to use it as leverage to negotiate his permanent departure from Tucson.”
The quality of care that Gruessner, a well-known transplant surgeon, gave to patients was never in question by either side in the case. In spite of that fact, Gruessner said publicity about his case has damaged his career.
The independent panel had recommended that UPH offer Gruessner his job back, but that Gruessner not return in a clinical capacity because that would be disruptive. It also recommended that Gruessner be paid until he finds another position.
In his lawsuit, Gruessner asks to get his job back with “full clinical and administrative reinstatement in his previous position.”
Gruessner’s claim says the problems began before his suspension and describes an atmosphere of discord and low morale within the UA College of Medicine.
Two months before he was suspended, Gruessner said Goldschmid asked him to step down from his position as chairman of the department of surgery due to a “record of poor performance.” Gruessner said he’d never before received any written or emailed communication listing any performance deficiencies.
Goldschmid stepped down from the dean’s position in March.
Though Gruessner has not worked since September 2013, he remains a UA employee with a half-time appointment and an annual salary of $270,500, according to UA officials.