Chicago Doctors May Press Free-Speech Claim

     CHICAGO (CN) – Cook County must face claims that it improperly fired two doctors for publicly condemning about $100 million in budget cuts and apparent pay discrimination between female and male doctors.
     Drs. Vietta Johnson, Daniel Ivankovich and Karen Nash were formerly employed by the Cook County Bureau of Health. Johnson was the Chair of the Division of Orthopedics and Podiatric Surgery at Provident Hospital from 1998 to 2007, Ivankovich was a surgeon in the hospital’s Division of Orthopedics from 2002 to 2007, and Nash was an oral and maxillofacial surgeon from 1992 to 2007.
     In 2007, the Cook County Bureau had a significant budget shortfall and needed to make $100 million worth of cuts to its services. All three doctors were fired in April 2007.
     In their complaint, Johnson and Ivankovich claimed that they were fired because they each spoke out about the proposed budget cuts. In 2006, Dr. Johnson spoke at a televised rally and said that a 50 percent budget cut would “cut to the bone.”
     A Chicago Tribune article entitled “Why Cook hospitals are losing millions,” quoted Ivankovich saying: “Give me a social worker and someone to help with the paperwork, and I could generate millions of dollars from Medicaid and Medicare a year.”
     Johnson and Nash, who are both black women, also claimed that their supervisor, Dr. Clifford Crawford, often questioned their abilities and competence to perform surgeries. They said they were paid less than their male colleagues who worked at Stroger Hospital, which unlike Provident is a level one trauma center.
     Ivankovich testified that the bureau chief of orthopedics, Dr. Mark Gonzalez told him that Johnson was “just another black physician troublemaker.”
     summary judgment, but upheld the doctors’ First Amendment and equal pay claims.
     “(I)t is clear that Drs. Johnson and Ivankovich were speaking in their capacities as private citizens and not pursuant to their official responsibilities. They were not employed in policymaking positions when they spoke. … Their job descriptions make no mention of budgeting matters, leaving no reason to believe they were responsible for publicly (or privately) advocating about the Bureau’s budget,” Feinerman said.
     “Dr. Ivankovich’s testimony that ‘[w]hen we go to the media, we’re physicians,’ does not warrant a different result. Just because Drs. Ivankovich and Johnson were speaking as physicians does not mean they were speaking in their capacities as Cook County physicians,” the judge continued.
     He dismissed Cook County’s argument that the doctors’ speech was not protected because it was motivated by a desire to save their jobs. “[T]he fact that the speaker was partly motivated by personal concerns does not necessarily mean the speech cannot also be a matter of public concern,” the judge said, quoting 7th Circuit precedent. Feinerman also upheld Johnson and Nash’s equal pay claim: “Because there is a genuine dispute as to whether doctors at a level one facility perform work that requires substantially similar skill, effort, and responsibilities to the work performed by doctors at a nonlevel one facility, summary judgment on the EPA [Equal Pay Act] claims is denied,” he concluded.

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