The long and arduous road to becoming a doctor is one that only a few people get to experience in their lives. Those few, dream of becoming a doctor at an early age which makes the journey seem that much longer. Your parent or neighbor might have been a doctor and that relationship might have created a desire to pursue the same career path. Maybe you were motivated by a desire to serve your community by providing health services to the poor or disabled. Unfortunately for you, your career as a doctor may come to a screeching halt before you complete your medical residency program. If you are at risk of being unceremoniously discharged from your residency program or have already been discharged there are certain legal considerations that you should examine.
If you are discharged from a medical residency program it is important to examine the language contained in the hospital policies and procedure manual. In the manual it will explain the procedure for internal disciplinary action taken against hospital staff, which may require a mandatory board hearing depending on the alleged infraction. Prior to the board hearing, a neutral intermediary may be utilized so that direct communication between the hospital and the resident is limited. The disciplinary board may be comprised of a three-person panel where you can choose to present your defense. I would advise against signing any documents presented to you by the hospital after you have received written notice of the disciplinary hearing until you have spoken to an attorney with experience in health and employment law. The manual will state how many days the panel has to render its final decision regarding your status in the hospital residency program, and the method by which the panel used to render the final decision. There will also be a procedure for filing a timely appeal should you choose to do so after an unsuccessful initial board hearing.
Suspension, Termination, or Resignation
The panel may recommend suspension or termination from the hospital residency program. The length of suspension will vary depending on the circumstances. A board’s decision to suspend or terminate a resident should be determined objectively but it’s difficult to refute the fact that there is a subjective component. This is why one resident who committed similar bad acts may only be suspended while another resident may be terminated. Hospitals have the authority here to make that determination and unless there is clear employment discrimination a court is unlikely to undermine and overthrow the hospital’s decision.
In some instances, I have witnessed the hospital allow the resident to voluntarily withdraw or resign from the residency program so that it doesn’t diminish their chances of gaining acceptance to another residency program. The thought of starting anew in a different residency program is chilling, but given the circumstances this could be your best option. You must decide whether you want to explain why you resign from the program or you can let your records speak for themselves. If you elect to be terminated from the program and subsequently apply for admission into a different program you will be required to submit your records from your previous residency program. Additionally, the hospital residency program may ask for references where the details of your departure may come to light. Further, the hospital manual should be examined alongside your hospital residency employment contract.
Arbitration, Lawsuit, or Administrative Complaint
Your residency employment contract will contain the terms and conditions of your employment during the residency program. The contract will most likely bind you to a mandatory arbitration in the event that a legal matter arises between you and the hospital. Hospitals prefer arbitration because:
- They are usually less expensive;
- Parties can choose the arbitrator:
- Parties can choose the time and place of the arbitration;
- The proceedings are held privately behind closed doors; and
- Its outcome does not become part of the public record.
Arbitration is not held in court but in a court-like setting complete with discovery proceedings and an arbitrator acting as a judge. Additionally, the arbitration is resolved much faster since the parties don’t have to wait for availability on the court’s docket, which can take months before you are actually heard by a judge. Final judgment by an arbitrator is binding and very difficult to successfully appeal.
Depending on the reason why you were fired you may be able to file a complaint with the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (“ACGME”) which is an organization that in part, helps physicians in graduate medical education receive fair solutions to residency/fellowship education-related concerns and formal complaints. Most residency programs are accredited by the ACGME. The ACGME requires that residents have a right to present their defense before a board or panel. The ACGME’s Resident Services division does not adjudicate disputes between individual persons and residency/fellowship programs or sponsoring institutions. Resident Services does not address issues regarding matters of admission, appointment, contract, credit, discrimination, promotion, or dismissal of faculty members, residents or fellows.
As such, depending on the facts and circumstances I advise residents against filing a lawsuit against the hospital unless you are terminated for an illegal reason. Illegal reasons can include, but are not limited to, discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, nationality, or religion. You may make a claim alleging discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and breach of contract if the facts could support such a claim. In cases where residents have successfully won lawsuits against the hospital for discrimination they introduced ample evidence from which it could be concluded that they were unlawfully discriminated against. Residents may try to obtain evidence of the following:
(a) testimony or affidavit from doctors in a direct supervisory position to attest to the satisfactory nature of your work;
(b) evidence to rebut other supervisor’s negative evaluations of you – the resident;
(c) evidence of other residents with low test scores and unfavorable evaluations who have been allowed to continue in the program; and
(d) evidence that you were able to successfully complete the residency requirements since leaving the hospital.
In some jurisdictions, direct evidence of discrimination is not required. A plaintiff may entitled to rely on circumstantial evidence to convince the trier of fact that an employer’s explanation for his discharge is pretextual and that his discharge was more likely than not motivated by discriminatory intent. However, more of today’s courts are less likely to rule in a resident’s favor unless the resident can show direct evidence of discrimination. In Zaklama, M.D. v. Mt. Sinai Medical Center, 842 F.2d 291, 296 (11th Cir.1988), Dr. Zaklama was able to obtain evidence of a-d above, but it took approximately six years for the case to be fully adjudicated and a lot of money in legal fees.
Regardless of whether you go before a hospital board, arbitration, or file a complaint with the ACGME you will have the opportunity to review your evaluations, personnel file, and credentialing so that you can build your defense.
If you feel that you are at risk of being removed from your Hospital Residency Program and would like to speak to an attorney about your options please contact us immediately. You should explore all of the options available to you because this is your career at stake. There is typically a very short window to file an appeal so it is imperative that you contact an attorney immediately if you are facing a disciplinary board hearing at your hospital.
This post was authored by Jamaal R. Jones, Esquire and Matt Lester of Jones Health Law, P.A. for more information contact us at (305) 877-5054; email us at JRJ@JonesHealthLaw.com, or visit our website at www.JonesHealthLaw.com.
It should be noted that I am not your lawyer (unless you have presently retained my services through a retainer agreement). This post is not intended as legal advice, it is purely educational and informational, and no attorney-client relationship shall result after reading it. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice. If you do not have one and would like to retain my legal services please contact me using the information listed above.
All of the information and references made to laws, regulations, and advisory opinions were accurate based on the law as it existed at this time, but laws are constantly evolving. Please contact me to be sure that the law which will govern your business is current. Thank you.