Friday, March 25, 2016

Doctor Loses Employment Discrimination Suit Against Cook County Hospital

Recently, in Liu v. Cook County Hospital, et al., the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employer in a federal employment discrimination lawsuit filed by Dr. Katherine Liu, an emergency room physician at Cook County Hospital. Dr. Liu lost her surgical privileges and was eventually terminated from her position. Liu alleged discrimination based on race, sex and national origin in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Seventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s summary judgment for the employer finding, “when all is said and done, the fundamental question at the summary judgment stage is simply whether a reasonable jury could find prohibited discrimination.”  The burden is on the plaintiff to offer evidence that her employer’s stated non-discriminatory reason was a lie intended to mask unlawful discrimination. A plaintiff may show a genuine dispute of fact based on pretext by identifying “weaknessses, implausibilities, inconsistencies, or contradictions” in the employer’s stated reason that a reasonable trier of fact could find it “unworthy of credence.” In the end, the plaintiff offered no such proof.

To justify the employment actions taken against Dr. Liu, the employer relied on her failure to operate immediately in appendicitis cases and her repeated refusal to follow proper hospital protocol in the management of such cases. The hospital pointed to undisputed facts demonstrating Dr. Liu’s history of non-compliance with proper procedures despite multiple directives to do so, as well as her statement to the Credential Committee that she was “entitled” to treat patients as she saw fit.  Dr. Liu was ultimately terminated for her behavior during the internal suspension and reappointment proceedings, which included accessing patient records to try to prove her performance was better than her colleagues, in violation of HIPPA and the hospital’s privacy policy.

Although the court assumed for purposes of summary judgment that, as a matter of medical science, Dr. Liu might ultimately be correct in her handling of appendicitis cases, the court found no evidence of pretext noting that the question is “never whether the employer was mistaken, cruel, unethical, out of his head, or downright irrational” in taking the employment  action for the stated reason, but rather whether the stated reason was the employer’s reason: “not a good reason, but the true reason.” The Court further noted, as it has before, that federal courts do not sit as a “super-personnel department, examining the wisdom of employers’ business decisions.”  Because plaintiff failed to prove that her employer’s stated non-discriminatory reason was a lie intended to mask unlawful discrimination, her case was tossed out of court.

Once again, this case decision reminds employers that one of the best ways to defend discrimination lawsuits is to have well-documented files in support of employment decisions. You never know when you might need it.