MODESTO -- A state appeals court has ruled that a Modesto kidney specialist can proceed with a whistle-blower lawsuit against his former bosses at Memorial Medical Center and Sacramento-based Sutter Health.
Dr. Mark Fahlen alleges that Memorial officials didn't renew his hospital privileges after he complained repeatedly about nurses disregarding his patient care orders. In a March 2011 lawsuit, he charged the disciplinary action violated a state law that prohibits retaliation against health care workers and doctors who report patient safety lapses.
Sutter countered that Fahlen first needed to exhaust a separate court process before bringing his retaliation claim in Stanislaus County Superior Court. In a ruling this week, the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno agreed with the physician.
"Hopefully, we can get a trial date in six months," said Fahlen, who is seeking unspecified damages from Memorial and its parent organization.
In a statement released Thursday, officials with Sutter and Memorial said, "The hospital action regarding Dr. Fahlen was appropriate and lawful, but as the matter is in litigation, we will not comment further."
From 2004 to 2008, Fahlen brought numerous complaints to Memorial administration, charging that nurses ignored or disobeyed his patient care orders and changed orders without his consent. In one instance, a nurse refused his order to use a defribrillator to revive a patient; another ignored his order to move a patient to intensive care, he said.
Fahlen has claimed that Memorial Chief Operating Officer Steve Mitchell asked the Gould Medical Group to fire him because of his arguments with nurses. Gould dismissed the doctor in May 2008 and, three months later, a hospital executive committee recommended that Fahlen no longer practice at Memorial.
Fahlen appealed to a hospital review panel, which found no evidence of incompetence and recommended that he keep his privileges. Sutter overruled the panel and cut ties with Fahlen in January.
Attorney Steve Schear, representing the doctor, said that attempts by doctors to challenge disciplinary action often get tied up in court for years and the process is tilted in favor of hospitals.
Protections for physicians were added to the state's anti-retaliation law in 2007, and it provides for a more expedient legal process.
"Doctors must have the freedom to report patient safety issues without fear of retaliation," Schear said.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Salter ruled in the doctor's favor when Sutter sought to dismiss the lawsuit. Denial of the motion resulted in an automatic appeal to the 5th District Court.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.