Maine Doctor’s Whistleblower Lawsuit to be Heard in Federal Court

In September of 2020, a Maine geriatrics specialist filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and retaliation for speaking up about patients’ treatment. On February 3, 2021, a federal court will consider a motion to dismiss the case and “decide which parts of the case will move forward,” according to a January 28 article from the Portland Press Herald.

Case Background 

Dr. Jabbar Fazeli MD, the sole member of Maine Geriatrics, LLC, practiced in Maine and provided services to Avita of Stroudwater, Stroudwater Lodge, and Avita of Wells, all centers that are in an integrated enterprise with the company Northbridge Companies. In 2015, Dr. Fazeli became the Medical Director for Avita of Stroudwater, an “assisted living and memory care community,” according to the complaint. He cared for and consulted with patients in all three facilities, each of which has been named as the Defendants in the lawsuit.

In August of 2016, “The Bangor Daily News ran a story about Dr. Fazeli’s brother’s disappearance from Maine to fight for the Islamic State in Syria,” according to the complaint. “The story quoted Dr. Fazeli about his brother’s radicalization and about how he had contacted the FBI to report his concerns two years earlier.” The lawsuit alleges that after the article came out, Marica Suddy, Regional Nurse Director for Northbridge Companies, talked about the article with another Northbridge Companies executive and “expressed concern” that the patients knowing about Dr. Fazeli’s “Middle Eastern origins and Islamic religious background” could harm the company.

The complaint alleges that after the article was published, “Dr. Fazeli was treated with increasing bias and disrespect.” According to the complaint, “[a]fter August 2016, nurses at the facilities were told not to follow Dr. Fazeli’s standing orders and policy recommendation,” even though he was doing his job as Medical Director. Allegedly, Suddy interfered with Dr. Fazeli’s research regarding ordering medications. When Dr. Fazeli tried to start “an initiative to improve record keeping for patient vaccinations at the facilities,” Suddy allegedly tried to stop the implementation of this program and told staff members not to collect vaccination records. 

Dr. Fazeli’s first whistleblower disclosure centers around the treatment of a patient at Avita of Stroudwater: in 2017, Dr. Fazeli concluded that this resident’s needs “could not be met and that the resident required a higher level of care,” according to the complaint. However, Resident Care Director (RCD) Jean Pecorelli, who worked at Avita of Stroudwater, didn’t agree with Dr. Fazeli’s assessment and allegedly “advocated for addressing behavioral issues stemming from the resident’s advanced dementia through unlawful chemical restraint.” The complaint states that “Pecorelli circumvented Dr. Fazeli by advocating to the resident’s spouse and the hospice provider for the medications,” which resulted in the patient being “inappropriately and unlawfully medicated with anti-psychotic medications.”

The complaint states that Dr. Fazeli emailed Courtney Freeman, Stroudwater Lodge’s Senior Executive Director and James Santana, then the Executive Director of Avita of Stroudwater, and voiced his concerns about the patient’s treatment. The complaint defines the email and conversations Dr. Fazeli had with Freeman and Santana as “protected activity” under the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. According to the complaint, Pecorelli engaged in further retaliation after this 2017 incident and through a letter and email provided Freeman and Suddy with “myriad false and misleading claims regarding Dr. Fazeli.” 

In May 2018, Dr. Fazeli contacted the long-term care ombudsman about a dispute over “an employee’s efforts to influence and direct the medical care and medical decision-making for his mother, who was a resident of the facility,” the complaint states. Dr. Fazeli was worried that Orlene DeMatteo, the Resident Care Director (RCD) at Avita of Stroudwater was not getting involved in what he believed to be inappropriate influencing of the patient’s medical treatment, according to the complaint. Later in the same month, Dr. Fazeli also raised concerns about two Avita of Stroudwater residents and expressed that they needed to relocate to a place that could support a higher level of care. However, the complaint alleges that Katrin Feick, Avita of Stroudwater’s Executive Director, was displeased with Dr. Fazeli’s assessment. Soon after Dr. Fazeli raised concerns about the two patients, Feick and DeMatteo “began to take steps to terminate Plaintiffs from their position as Medical Director for Avita of Stroudwater,” the complaint states. 

Dr. Fazeli was terminated from the three facilities in October of 2018, and the complaint states that he lost many patients’ business because of the retaliatory actions that the Defendants allegedly engaged in. “Defendants provided false and misleading information to residents and their families regarding [Dr. Fazeli’s] separation from the Medical Director position and residents’ rights to retain [Dr. Fazeli and Maine Geriatrics] as their medical provider” — the complaint alleges that the Defendants “mislead them into believing that Dr. Fazeli was no longer available.” The complaint states that “Northbridge Companies’ actions were motivated by discriminatory animus towards [Dr. Fazeli] and his practice because of his race, ethnicity, and ancestry” violated 42. U.S.C. § 1981

Dr. Fazeli is seeking an order for the Defendants to reinstate Dr. Fazeli’s contracts “or award front pay,” compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, among other things. Read the lawsuit in full here.

Legal Proceedings 

According to the Portland Press Herald, all of the defendants “filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November” and “argued in court documents that Fazeli has not stated any claims for which the court can grant relief, and he has not described a direct link between the alleged discrimination and the end of his contract.” The defendants’ attorney Josh Scott said in a hearing that “the allegations were not specific or connected enough to proceed in court.” 

Fazeli and Maine Geriatrics’ attorney Chad Hansen “asked the court to allow all claims to proceed,” according to the article. On January 28, U.S. District Judge Jon Levy “questioned the attorneys for nearly an hour over Zoom,” according to the article.

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