In a new lawsuit filed against the university on Wednesday, a former doctor at USC’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center has alleged he lost his job in 2019 after filing a complaint against his supervisor and was offered a six-figure payment to keep silent about these events.
The suit filed by Dr. Mojtaba Akhtari alleges that USC’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program was used to protect upper management at the expense of faculty, staff and patients. It also claims that the medical guidance of Akhtari’s supervisor, Dr. Preet Chaudhary, led to the death of a patient.
Akhtari was hired in July 2014 as an associate professor of clinical medicine. Before his employment began, Chaudhary was sent to USC’s Ethics Committee and disciplined after “...interfering with and disrespecting patients’ right to choose their medical care,” according to case documents.
During his employment, Akhtari complained about Chaudhary’s conduct several times, beginning in Akhtari’s first month at USC. Chaudhary was abroad at the time, but continued to treat patients despite being unable to physically assess their needs in person, the suit alleges.
Akhtari also alleges that multiple hospital staff members complained about Chaudhary’s actions in October 2014 when Chaudhary attempted to interfere with a patient’s wish to be placed in comfort care, a choice supported by the patient’s nurses, physician’s assistant, and social worker. As a result, Chaudhary was banned from seeing patients for one year but was allowed to continue working for USC.
Akhtari alleges that Chaudhary’s misconduct continued over the following years, including one instance where Chaudhary allegedly prescribed a patient medication that caused septic shock and led to her subsequent death in January 2019.
In his suit against USC, Akhtari also asserts he was placed on administrative leave in February 2019 after “false and baseless” accusations by Chaudhary, namely that Akhtari “...wanted to use a particular drug for a patient without disclosing a supposed relationship with the pharmaceutical company.” During his leave, Akhtari wrote a formal letter of complaint that “chronicled years of Chaudhary’s unprofessional and unlawful behavior as well as his retaliatory conduct.” The suit states that Akhtari’s complaint “languished for months with no resolution.”
“It speaks to this failure of USC’s ADR process,” said Joshua Arnold, one of the attorneys supporting Akhtari. “(USC) has demonstrated that they are willing to twist the system in order to advance their own end.”
An alternative dispute resolution program provides a way to settle disputes outside the legal system through mediation and negotiation. It has become a popular alternative to the courtroom to avoid legal fees and lengthy trials.
In May 2019, USC acknowledged that Chaudhary’s accusations against Akhtari were false - and that the medication had not even been prescribed by Akhtari - but failed to renew Akhtari’s contract in June 2019, effectively terminating him.
Case documents also named Physician’s Assistant Lisa Mark and Dr. Akil Merchant, both of whom were vocal about Chaudhary’s alleged misconduct. Mark was allegedly fired for speaking out against Chaudhary in 2014, while Merchant left in 2018 after being “targeted” by Chaudhary.
Arnold, who is a graduate of the USC Gould School of Law, is pressing for the case to be heard in a public forum, which he believes the university may attempt to prevent.
“My hope is that USC can live up to some of the things they have said,” he said. “If they are really committed to a new path, then they will allow these claims to be heard in a public court.”
Whether the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the ability for the case to be heard publicly is still to be determined.
“That does have some complication factors,” Arnold said.
When contacted by Annenberg Media with a list of questions regarding the lawsuit, the university issued a single-sentence statement: “We believe the claims in the lawsuit are baseless."
Update: On May 7, the University issued the following statement:
“Dr. Preet Chaudhary acted within the scope of his responsibilities as the Chief of the Division of Hematology and in full compliance with USC policies and the law when he reported concerns related to actions of a faculty member under his supervision.
Dr. Chaudhary has never been barred from seeing patients during his tenure at USC and has no record of discipline. The Keck School of Medicine and the Department of Medicine have the highest confidence in his leadership.”