Former Harbor-UCLA medical chief files lawsuit
CLAIM: Gail Anderson says officials damaged his reputation.
By Kristin S. Agostoni
The former chief medical officer at County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center alleges two county health officials damaged his reputation and exposed him to negative publicity after his abrupt exit last year from the Torrance-area hospital.
Gail Anderson, who had led Harbor-UCLA for 13 years, says in a lawsuit that he was escorted to the hospital exit "in full view of fellow physicians" and others after he was "wrongfully and without due cause" placed on administrative leave.
In the complaint filed June 6 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Anderson takes aim at Mitchell Katz, director of the county Department of Health Services, and Hal Yee, the agency's chief medical officer, alleging they leaked a news story about his departure to the Los Angeles Times and, later, the Daily Breeze, leading to coverage in other outlets.
"Local television stations picked up the story and ran spots repeating the same defamatory statements and innuendo," according to Anderson's complaint, which seeks $50 million in damages.
It alleges Katz and Yee invaded his professional and personal privacy, caused him emotional distress and destroyed his reputation in medical and other circles.
Anderson, a Manhattan Beach resident, graduated in 1976 from the USC Keck School of Medicine, according to the Medical Board of California. Before working at Harbor-UCLA, he was senior vice president of medical affairs and chief of the medical staff at Grady Health System in Atlanta,the complaint states.
The reasons for Anderson's departure from Harbor-UCLA - which surprised staff members and doctors - have not been publicly explained. Both papers had reported that Anderson was placed on leave amid an investigation. The Times, citing unnamed sources in a follow-up article, reported that authorities were probing the hospital's process of credentialing doctors and aspects of Anderson's own credential to treat patients.
His exit also came a couple weeks before a Sept. 13 inspection report found patient care problems at Harbor-UCLA that prompted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to threaten cutting off Medicare funding. Harbor-UCLA responded by instituting new policies and other changes, and CMS in March alerted the hospital that its Medicare status had been restored.
Hospital spokeswoman Julie Rees referred questions about Anderson's complaint and his status with the county to the Department of Health Services.
Michael Wilson, that department's spokesman, said Katz and Yee declined to comment on the suit. Wilson did not answer questions about Anderson, writing in an email message that "the status of personnel matters is confidential."
Richard Carroll, Anderson's Long Beach attorney, said his client has been on paid leave since last year, and has been required to remain at home during work hours.
He said he believes Anderson will soon receive word that he is terminated. He characterized a recent administrative meeting during which Anderson could respond to the actions against him as "an abomination."
Asked whether Anderson had received an explanation for his departure, Carroll said the "primary feature" offered in a notice his client received last year was insubordination. He said implications that his departure was tied to credentialing issues are "false."
Carroll said Anderson could choose to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against the county once he exhausts the administrative appeal process.
The complaint against Katz and Yee alleges defamation, libel, slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims.
While Anderson had received a letter advising him of a pending administrative investigation at the time he was led out of the hospital, it also said his leave was not a disciplinary action, according to the complaint.
While the action constituted a "confidential personnel matter," Katz and Yee "deliberately" and "maliciously" leaked a story to the Los Angeles Times concerning his departure, along with a second story to the Breeze, the complaint says.
Anderson's attorneys argue both officials portrayed him "as a criminal actor and exposed him to scorn and strong public criticism" from the medical community, patients and the public at large.
"I'm blaming these guys basically for going to the press," Carroll said. "There's an assumption of privacy ... until the employee waves it."
Anderson earned more than $420,000 in 2009, the Times reported last year.