FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) - Five doctors sued Cleveland Clinic Florida, claiming its operations director retaliated against them for complaining that deathly ill patients were prematurely discharged or dumped onto other hospitals.
The lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court alleges that one patient who was suffering from Class III heart failure was improperly discharged from Cleveland Clinic Florida's Weston medical center shortly after admission. Another patient, a critically ill woman with cancer, was released within six hours of arriving, the lawsuit claims.
The plaintiff doctors say they complained about these and other instances of medical negligence while working in the emergency department at the hospital. But instead of being commended, they were singled out for replacement, they claim.
One of the plaintiffs, then-chair of the emergency department, in Sept. 2016 reported the alleged pattern of negligence to Cleveland Clinic Florida's president and its chief of staff. His internal grievance was levied against a hospital director of operations, who the lawsuit accuses of “discharging patients with no record of ... ever having personally evaluated them.”
Among other reported incidents, two patients faced potentially fatal medical complications soon after being released from the hospital. Despite signs of an infection, the first patient was released from Cleveland Clinic Florida's care, only to be readmitted three days later in septic shock, the lawsuit says. The second had a heart attack the day after the operations director authorized his release, according to the allegations.
In another instance, the director of operations “instructed the nursing staff ... to permit to escape a patient” who had been involuntarily committed for psychiatric evaluation and was suffering from kidney failure, the lawsuit alleges. Other hospitals had supposedly refused to accept a transfer of the patient until Cleveland Clinic Florida completed his kidney dialysis.
“When sheriff's deputies took the 'escaped' patient into custody in the lobby, [the operations director] instructed them to take the patient to Broward General Medical Center and withheld any information about the patient's kidney failure,” the lawsuit alleges, claiming the incident represented a violation of the patient-dumping prohibitions in the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act.
In retaliation for reporting the misconduct, the lawsuit claims, the operations director began monitoring the plaintiffs' check-in and check-out times, gathering evidence to chide them for leaving their shifts early.
On Feb. 1, the hospital's emergency room doctors were called into a meeting with a Cleveland Clinic emergency-services chairman and a human resource attorney, who questioned them about the practice of leaving shifts early.
The plaintiffs (five of the emergency room docs) say they later heard from colleagues that their jobs were at risk, as a medical staffing company had been recruiting locum-tenens physicians to work in Cleveland Clinic Florida's emergency room. They heard a rumor that a recruiter from the staffing company proclaimed that they would soon be asked to turn in their Cleveland Clinic badges.
“Covertly planning such an on-the-job ambush constitutes a constructive discharge, which relieves Drs. Doe ... of the necessity to wait around for CCF to add insult to injury by humiliating them with on-the-spot terminations. They all, together with a sixth [emergency department] physician, therefore submitted their resignations Monday, Feb. 6,” the lawsuit reads.
The plaintiffs filed the pleading Feb. 7, anonymously, "in an attempt to avoid the professional shunning" often experienced by whistleblowers, they say. They maintain that the practice of leaving shifts early was standard operating procedure namely when patient loads were low.
Cleveland Clinic Florida is listed as a defendant alongside Frederick Ross, the doctor named as the Weston hospital "director of operations."
CCF denied the allegations in a statement issued to Courthouse News.
"Cleveland Clinic Florida is preparing to respond to the litigation but believes the claims are without merit and were only made because of a recent internal review," the statement reads.
Ross's official title is Chairman of Hospital Medicine, according to a CCF spokesperson.
U.S. News and World Report recently ranked the Cleveland Clinic Florida Weston hospital #1 in the Miami-metro area and #5 in Florida, based on survival and safety data, nurse staffing levels and other medical criteria.
CCF's president touted the rankings in a press release, stating: "We are thrilled beyond measure to be recognized by our peers for our focus on quality and patient safety. These accolades belong to our team of caregivers who are truly committed to providing exceptional service and putting patients first.”
Additionally, Cleveland Clinic Florida’s gastroenterology and GI surgery department achieved a national ranking (49th nationally), and its orthopedics and geriatrics branches were recognized as high performing specialties.
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