Suit claims Maine Medical Center retaliated against employee for reporting strip club outing

Posted June 19, 2012, at 6:52 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A Maine Medical Center administrator is suing the hospital for allegedly retaliating against him — including moving him to an attic office “visited by bats” — after he questioned a tradition of male residents and fellows going to a strip club during an annual out-of-state work conference.

Patrick O’Brien claims his boss in the family medicine department at MMC became hostile and transferred him to another position to punish him for raising concerns about the yearly strip club outing, which included lap dances. He sued the hospital in Cumberland County Superior Court seeking compensatory and punitive damages for emotional distress and harm to his reputation.

In November 2009, a resident physician complained to a chief resident during a conversation in O’Brien’s office that her husband, who was also employed by MMC, was uncomfortable going to the strip club but felt he had no choice, according to O’Brien’s complaint.

O’Brien, then the administrative director of the department, was later told by another physician that she purposely arrived at the Rhode Island conference after the outing to avoid being associated with it, even though female residents were “sent back to the hotel while the men go to a strip club,” the court documents state.

At a department leadership meeting, O’Brien raised concerns that the strip club tradition and pressure on residents to attend violated MMC ethics and corporate values and amounted to sexual harassment. He also questioned whether the hospital reimbursed alcohol expenses for the strip club visit, according to his complaint.

O’Brien filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission about the strip club issue. It was dismissed in March after an investigator found no reasonable grounds that the hospital retaliated against him for reporting the incident.

“The hospital is aware of Mr. O’Brien’s claims, as it has already aggressively denied and defended against them in front of the Maine Human Rights Commission,” MMC said in a statement. “After thorough investigation, the commission appropriately dismissed Mr. O’Brien’s claims as without reasonable cause.”

O’Brien’s department chair, Dr. Ann Skelton, criticized how he raised his concerns at the meeting, saying his goal was to humiliate a physician identified as “Dr. MB,” in a report filed by commission investigator Angela Tizon.

“Shortly after the meeting began, [O’Brien] turned to Dr. MB and said, ‘So, [Dr.MB,] what do you want to tell us about the lap dances at your conferences?’” according to MMC’s version of events in the report.

The hospital formally investigated O’Brien’s complaints and found that no one felt coerced into attending the strip club outing and no costs related to the club were reimbursed by MMC. Two physician managers of the sports medicine division, including Dr. MB, were disciplined with written warnings and letters, as the hospital stated that strip club visits, even outside conference time, were inappropriate, according to Tizon’s report.

O’Brien’s suit said the two sports medicine physician managers organized the annual trip.

The hospital also mandated training on sexual harassment and ethics for program staff.

O’Brien’s attorney, Barbara Goodwin, said he still shows up to work every day and hopes to continue his employment at MMC.

“Mr. O’Brien feels strongly that the Human Rights Commission investigator got it wrong,” she said. “He’s been harassed and retaliated against ever since he reported the strip club incident.”

O’Brien felt he was made a scapegoat and offered to quit. He ended up continuing to work but was pounced on for “any minor slip in his language,” set up to fail in meetings and excluded from new department initiatives, according to the complaint.

In August 2011, O’Brien was told his position had been eliminated as part of a move to save money. He was given a choice of leaving or accepting a new position as director of special projects.

He was then moved into an office on an attic floor described in the complaint as a musty, makeshift space “known to have frequent visits from bats.” The office was located five floors away from his new department.

Tizon wrote that O’Brien failed to demonstrate that his job transfer negatively affected him, since his salary and benefits remained the same while other directors were laid off due to a budget crisis at the hospital.

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