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Sexual harassment of nurses by physician is not tolerated!

CASE ON POINT: Maheshwari v. Vista Hospital System, Inc., 2003 WL 22079563--CA.

ISSUE: In this California case, the courts were confronted with whether or not a hospital has the right to take appropriate action against a physician who has a documented record of sexual harassment against nurses. To its credit, one hospital went to bat for its nurses and vigorously pursued claims for sexual harassment against a once-prominent physician. The physician retaliated by bringing suit against the hospital.

CASE FACTS: On February 27, 1996, Nurse Diane Walsh was working in the emergency room with Dr. B. D. Maheshwari. When Dr. Maheshwari walked into the nurses' station, he made a double-entendre statement that had sexual overtones to it. Nurse Nancy Bakewell, Nurse Walsh's supervisor and the nurse manager of the emergency room, overheard Dr. Maheshwari's comment, and noticed that Nurse Walsh appeared embarrassed and upset. Later, Nurse Bakewell discussed the incident with Nurse Walsh. Nurse Walsh informed her that Dr. Maheshwari's comment embarrassed her and that "Dr. Maheshwari is always making statements like this when [I'm] in PCU and no one has been able to stop him." Nurse Bakewell prepared a written report of the incident, entitled "Statement of Concern." She presented the statement to her immediate supervisor, Jan Henderson. Henderson directed the hospital's Human Resources Department to investigate. The Statement of Concern was given to the Human Resources Department and was then forwarded to the hospital's Chief Executive Director, Marlene Woodworth. At her direction, a human resources representative, Diane Cox, interviewed Nurses Bakewell and Walsh. Both told Cox that they had repeatedly heard "sexually charged" comments made by Dr. Maheshwari, and were bothered by them. Bakewell also gave Cox the names of two other employees who had complained about Dr. Maheshwari's behavior. They confirmed that Dr. Maheshwari often made comments containing sexual innuendoes. One reported that Dr. Maheshwari told her "You probably want my body." Cox memorialized the interviews in a written memorandum to Woodworth. Cox did not have authority to interview Dr. Maheshwari or to recommend action against him because medical staff issues were handled by the hospital's Medical Executive Committee. Nevertheless, Cox requested that Woodworth follow up on the Statement of Concern by discussing it with the Chief of Staff, Dr. Gupta. After Woodworth discussed the Statement of Concern and reviewed summaries of Cox's interviews with Dr. Gupta, they both met with Dr. Maheshwari and showed these to him. Dr. Maheshwari denied that he made the comments attributed to him. Incongruously, he remarked, "Well, Marlene, I've made you blush too," and reminded Woodworth of comments he made about her clothing and jewelry. (Woodworth had not been offended by the comments at the time they were made. She was offended when Dr. Maheshwari raised them at the meeting because she believed he was trying to make her feel uncomfortable). Woodworth told him that his remarks had offended Nurse Walsh as well as other employees and requested that he refrain from such behavior in the future. She stressed that employees are entitled to an harassment-free work environment, and gave him a copy of the hospital's sexual harassment policy. No further action was planned, and the matter was considered closed. However, on March 30, 199, using a letterhead from his law office (Dr. Maheshwari, was licensed as a lawyer), Dr. Maheshwari wrote to Dr. Gupta and accused the nurses of retaliating for his complaints about mismanagement. Dr. Gupta called for special meeting of the Executive Committee on April 19, 1996. At the meeting, Dr. Maheshwari spoke first and requested that the committee conduct an investigation into the allegations against him. Woodworth then related the contents of the "Statement of Concerns." She also mentioned that Dr. Maheshwari had been the subject of similar complaints in 1992, and recommended that any investigation by the committee include those incidents as well. The Executive Committee (EC) voted to create an ad hoc committee to interview the employees and report back to the Executive Committee. After investigation, the EC came to a consensus that the allegations against Dr. Maheshwari were credible. A "weak" letter of reprimand was planned. However, the Board concluded that it had an obligation to protect nurses from sexual harassment. It sent its own letter to Dr. Maheshwari. A "zero tolerance" policy on sexual harassment was stressed. The letter warned that "[It] had directed management to monitor the situation to assure that your harassment has ceased. If further harassment is reported and verified. [It] will pursue all rights, remedies, and procedures available to it to assure that you are not permitted access to the Medical Center." Dr. Maheshwari brought suit against the hospital, Woodworth, Henderson, Bakewell and others. The Superior Court, Riverside County, granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Dr. Maheshwari appealed.

COURT'S OPINION: The Court of Appeal of California affirmed the judgment of the lower court.
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Title Annotation:Nursing Law Case on Point
Author:Tammelleo, A. David
Publication:Nursing Law's Regan Report
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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