March 2nd, 2012

LA Times: California physician assistant wins $168 million in harassment suit


By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2012

Ani Chopourian told of sexually inappropriate conduct, bullying and retaliation at a Sacramento hospital. The award is believed to be the largest for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

Ani Chopourian lost track of how many complaints she filed during the two years she worked as a physician assistant at Sacramento’s Mercy General Hospital.

There were at least 18, she recalled, many having to do with the bullying surgeon who once stabbed her with a needle and broke the ribs of an anesthetized heart patient in a fit of rage. Another surgeon, she said, would greet her each morning with “I’m horny” and slap her bottom. Yet another called her “stupid chick” in the operating room and made disparaging remarks about her Armenian heritage, asking if she had joined Al Qaeda.

Managers from Mercy General, a unit of Catholic Healthcare West, told a Sacramento trial court that it was Chopourian who was guilty of professional misconduct, which was why they fired her and tried to deny her unemployment benefits.

But in a stunning rebuke of the hospital’s side of the story, a jury Wednesday awarded Chopourian $168 million in damages, believed to be the largest judgment for a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

“They were just shocked by the whole workplace environment,” said Lawrance Bohm, Chopourian’s attorney during the three-week trial in which witness after witness depicted a culture of vulgarity and arrogance they said humiliated female employees and put patients at risk.

Chopourian, 45, worked at four other hospitals in New England and California before joining the cardiovascular surgical team at Mercy General in August 2006. Two years later, she was fired days after filing the last of her complaints about patient care and the doctors’ demeaning behavior.

Preening cardiac surgeons and locker-room humor weren’t unique to the Sacramento hospital’s operating rooms or those at another Catholic Healthcare West facility where she occasionally worked, Chopourian said in an interview.

“But the environment at Mercy General, the sexually inappropriate conduct and the patient care issues being ignored, the bullying and intimidation and retaliation —– I have never seen an environment so hostile and pervasive,” said the Los Angeles native, who earned her physician assistant credentials at the Yale School of Medicine in 1999.

The jurors in U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller’s courtroom heard hospital administrators defend their management practices and attest to unwavering commitment to quality patient care.

But the litany of abuses detailed by current and former employees apparently swayed the jury to accept Chopourian’s allegations that administrators put up with gross misbehavior in the cardiac unit to stroke the surgeons’ outsize egos.

“Cardiac surgery brings in the most money for any hospital facility, which is why they are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal and inappropriate behavior,” Chopourian said. “We had four very strong witnesses who were frightened to speak out but did so because they felt it was important that someone put a stop to this.”

Bohm conceded that the record judgment — $125 million in punitive damages and $42.7 million for lost wages and mental anguish — could be reduced on appeal or in settlement talks to avoid what would probably be a protracted challenge to the generous award. But he said he was confident the jury’s judgment against the hospital chain would survive appellate review.

Mercy General President Denny Powell said the hospital stood by its decision to fire Chopourian and would appeal the verdict.

“We are disappointed by the jury’s decision. We are committed to providing a safe working environment, free from sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior,” Powell said in a statement issued Thursday. “Any complaint is thoroughly investigated and prompt action is taken. We do not believe that the facts support this verdict or judgment.”

Catholic Healthcare West, which recently changed its name to Dignity Health, operates 40 hospitals and care centers in California, Arizona and Nevada.

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  1. Tamara says:

    Congratulations on getting out of such a despicable environment and for exposing it to the world. Management will never stop being complicit until enough “risk” is attached to their behavior. My only sadness is that the only reason this bullied target had a case is that her bullies used sexual and ethnic bases for some of their attacks….we need a bullying statute that doesnt excuse behavior only because it doesnt fit into protected class.

    • kay says:

      Exactly. Abuse is abuse. It festers and is devastating to employees and families. What employers should understand is that when you look the other way for constant abuse that doesn’t fit too nicely into the already “protected” categories, it indeed will at some point seep over into a few of the “protected” categories… But that doesn’t even matter. Just because I was called a “Princess, bit**, instead of using my race sprinkled in there.

      Or because the grotesque girl didn’t say she’d like to punch me and use my race as a description, or any number of other attacks such as di**head, does not mean that I should endure it and hold my temper… because she only broke the company violence and code of conduct… but not the EEO laws…on those occasions.

      Sadly, the company I worked for and was “terminated” from for having a disability and not “recovering fully” within their strict 12mths, well, they do not recognize EEO laws. Even a cause finding, arrhythmia and PTSD will not deter them from denial,coercion and then retaliation. Even when one of the harassers says in a meeting in front of everyone “Well if it would have been done to me, I would not tattle”. I thought I was in the principals office and not a mother… at work. Attack after attack I was the unbelievably passive target and was told by my sup after the two girls were playing peekaboo and spotted by my sup as they gathered harassed and peeked around a column at work to further menace me, “they are jealous and have no class” and “you know what I want to do” or “you handle it well”.

      I had just turned 30 and am a parent. I couldn’t believe it all. Was I supposed to reciprocate? The horrendous personal invasions, near stalking, menacing, threats and indecent invasions…shock.

      But then, I soon learned. lack of ethics and covering health harming company practices is ingrained within their history as a company often in the media for such.

  2. Jay Jacobus says:

    There is something not right about this story. Lawyers will not take these kinds of cases and witnesses will not speak up.

    This is a red herring designed to mislead victims into seeeking a legal solution when legal solutions do not happen.

    • J. says:

      Legal solutions do happen. However, suing is a nightmare and should be done only when no other options are left. There are people who win, or successfully settle, lawsuits in which bullying and related workplace problems are involved. I am one of them (though my settlement wouldn’t touch this dollar amount).

      According to the article there were several witnesses and there was probably a reasonable amount of documentation as well. It appears she had two causes of action that are covered by federal antidiscrimination law, sexual harassment and retaliation (if retaliation is for filing a discrimination charge, or for alleging discrimination). If the EEOC supported her suit (it almost never does), that may have been a factor.

      It’s possible for a defendant’s actions to be so horrible that the jury gets angry and that likely happened here. If looks like the jury firmly believed punishment was needed and they believed the plaintiff and her witnesses. The jury award is huge. I would be shocked if it stands. If the hospital believes the decision will withstand appeal, it may be happy to settle for a reduced (but still very large) amount. She isn’t likely to get the huge sum the jury awarded, but this is a very good thing.

  3. Jay Jacobus says:

    This case helps employers in two ways:

    It shows that juries are totally outrageous in over compensating victims of abuse.

    It shows the general public that additional laws are not needed.

    It is provacative and misleading.

  4. Kenny says:

    I find it very hard to find a lawyer who would take
    a case like this. People just do not speak up, and
    become a witness.

    • Two reasons (at least): there is no law (this case had discrimination laws at its center) and bullied workers lose their jobs and can’t pay attorney fees.

      • J. says:

        It seems that there may have been at least three, maybe four, antidiscrimination laws violated here. The punitive damages award is impressive.

        Everyone who is bullied at work should be aware of laws banning discrimination. Discrimination is one way into a lawsuit against a bullying employer, not everyone has discrimination as a claim but knowing if you do is key. There are time limits and exceeding them, or failing to file the charge, will kill a potential discrimination suit. That said, the EEOC leans pro-employer and usually issues a “right to sue” letter, rather than giving any real support – and it takes a long time to get that letter. However, even that letter is necessary where discrimination is involved.

  5. kay says:

    I love that this has happened. In my opinion, it brings awareness and credibility to the true pervasiveness of many work environments. It shows just how companies will have an absolute lie ready to put on a veneer of a happy and healthy work culture. These companies know full well that all of this mess goes on daily.

    Just reading her account of some of the comments, I know personally, that it does happen. All of the outrageous things that she mentions were so familiar to me. I worked for almost 8yrs for a corrupt company in the media recently for business decisions, and well known for its unethical and untrue accountings told to the public.

    I know what happened to me and the company didn’t even blink as they sent me to a psychiatrist claiming that he was an IME (independent medical examiner) and the audio tape that I recorded of the meeting is so atrocious that I myself don’t believe it. I told him of some very clear factual and near verbatim incidents and he refuted, denounced and disregarded all of them and told me that I was paranoid. The tape sounds nothing like a psychiatrist and all who have listened comment stating “How could he sleep at night”. He was paid to disregard me and provide a paranoia diagnosis. The company then denied my return to work from a voluntary six mth sick leave due to PTSD diagnosis and severe arrythmia. This after having sought help very calmly and quietly for a pervasively hostile environment where even my sup witnessed and reported menacing to HR…they did nothing. I was accosted in a meeting in front of HR where one bully said “if it would have happened to me I would not tattle”… I was videotaped in restroom by the sick, constantly sexual bantering male sup and the IME completely ignored my disclosure when I told him what led to my PTSD. Never commented. The tape is atrocious. What independent psych could hear a lady tell them of this invasion and comments and ignore and change subject?

    I no longer have a job. The company sent letter stating that I had a disability and would not recover within the strict 12mth deadline and therefore I was terminated. I’d been seeking return after 6mth leave and when I asked for accommodation, that is when they made effort to have me say that nothing happened and then terminated. I have kids and a young child with juvenile diabetes. I have mortgage and have dreamed and thought of this daily since it occurred. Now I am scared to death of what will happen financially. I’m locked in a nightmare. I hope she gets as much of that award as possible. These folks are sick and companies need punished. They fired her??

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      Thousands of stories like yours (and mine) can get buried under one story of an incredibly large award.

      There was a Time article this week that said that bullying is not as big a problem as previously reported. They mentioned two cases that they thought were indicative of misleading information. In reality, they dismissed us without considering the multitude of devastating stories related to bullying.

      They have given us fair coverage in the past. Hopefully they we so again.

  6. kachina says:

    I think the award setts a precedent and highlights the changing legal landscape which recognizes the validity of psychological injuries as well as physical and social effects of psychological attacks. Here’s a link to an important documents that I think are real culture-shifting precursors to significant changes in the way Canadian business and legislative bodies will operate in the near future.

    http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/workplace/Perfect%20Legal%20Storm%20FINAL%20EN%20wc.pdf

    http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Workforce_2011/Workforce-Standard-Backgrounder-FINAL.pdf

    • Jay Jacobus says:

      Remarkable, the agents of change are in Canada. They may be the first to refine the egoes of the powerful. I tip my hat to them.

      • kachina says:

        I suspect that the agents of change are everywhere..it’s just a matter of time before the social climate change we’ve been waiting for hits home in your neighbourhood.

    • kay says:

      This is incredible. I recently read about MA and what they are trying very hard to do with the bill. I swear, I have some kind of psychological problem alright because I cant stop re-living the many incidents. I can’t stop grieving and can’t believe what he did to me at work. Or the things I’d him him say. I can’t believe the mixture of toxicity and everything that went on around me as others would comment on toxicity but stay quiet.

      I feel that I have to try and pull myself together. My positive outlook and dedication to work is so damaged as I think every day “This can really happen to people”. Removing myself from this state seems the only key to unlock me even a little. I have to remove all association from memory or from my life.

      I am considering safety and climate as I try to devise a real plan to set down new roots for my family. Safety meaning crime as well as WORK. I will consider moving anywhere that I will feel relief from an unprotected prison of a workplace where you shut your mouth and allow rampant harassment or else. I have good character and work is a huge part of my identity, I want to do well and contribute to society in a positive way. Laws would feel like a lifeline to me.

  7. tina says:

    Yes i have to agree she very well deserves it.I just git done being bullied by a co work an new boss for the last year.I was fired after 14 yrs at this hospitol.

  8. […] and violence has been documented extensively and disruptive behavior, whether it is rolling eyes in disgust, refusing to mentor, ignoring […]

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