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California doctor wins in state high court whistleblower ruling

California's highest court has ruled in favor of a Modesto doctor in what his attorney called "the biggest victory for patient rights since California's health care whistleblower law was adopted in 1999." The case of the physician who alleged that his employer fired him and revoked his hospital privileges for complaining about hospital nurses has attracted support on both sides from the California medical community.

The California Supreme Court in this ruling dismissed the claims by the doctor's former employer that he could not bring a whistleblower protection lawsuit alleging retaliation until he had taken every other available legal action. The court said this requirement would "seriously undermine the Legislature's purpose to afford a whistleblower on a hospital medical staff the right to sue."

The physician's whistleblower lawsuit dates back to 2011. The kidney specialist asserted that in 2008 Sutter Health in Sacramento terminated him and his hospital privileges at Memorial Medical Center after he complained to hospital administrators multiple times about nurses being insubordinate. He claimed that this insubordination led to substandard patient care. One incident allegedly involved a nurse disobeying his instructions to move a patient to the Intensive Care Unit.

The doctor says he was unable to reinstate his hospital privileges after he started his own practice. Allegedly both the termination and the revocation of privileges were done at the behest of the hospital's chief operating officer.

Sutter Health contends that the high court ruling covers only "the very narrow issue" of whether the doctor can proceed with his whistleblower suit and "did not express any view on the merits of [his] retaliation claim." However, the plaintiff's attorney says it "guarantees that physicians have the same protections as hospital employees if they report problems that threaten to harm patients."

The doctor, who is currently in private practice, is going to continue his quest through the courts to get his privileges at Memorial back and recover his legal fees. He has the support of the American Medical Association. However, the defendants have powerful supporters as well, including the California Hospital Association and some large health systems.

Whistleblower lawsuits can be challenging, particularly when the plaintiff is going up against powerful, well-funded entities. Employment law and whistleblower attorneys can help them fight for their right to regain their jobs and/or damages owed to them for actions taken because they spoke up about wrongdoing in the workplace.

Source: The Modesto Bee, "California Supreme Court upholds whistleblower protection for Modesto physician" Ken Carlson, Feb. 20, 2014

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