Recent filings in the federal lawsuit Hardin v. Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH), Bob Edwards, and Steve Lund have shed new light on matters that precipitated the case as well as the potential financial cost of the suit should the decision go against MCDH, and the tactics being employed by both sides.
While the administration has refused to tell the public, which ultimately foots the bill, how much the Hardin case has cost the hospital or how much it is projected to cost should it go to trial, court filings indicate that Hardin is suing for five million dollars in damages. Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mike Ellis has stated that the hospital's insurance will pay a portion of the legal costs. Presumably, the refusal by MCDH officials to inform the public regarding the legal costs stems from a desire to keep Ms. Hardin and her attorney in the dark about how much MCDH is willing to spend on the matter.
This appears to turn the situation on its head. The plaintiff, Ellen Hardin, the former chief human resources officer at MCDH, is a lone individual seemingly represented by a one woman law firm. MCDH is represented by Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani (commonly referred to as Gordon & Rees), a very large firm with offices across the country. The website for Gordon & Rees brags about their attorneys winning dismissals for corporations. One of these was an appellate ruling against an ovarian cancer patient and in favor of corporate suppliers of talcum powder. Another case involved Gordon Rees defending cosmetic giant L'Oreal against claims that L'Oreal products had badly injured consumers.
On the one hand Gordon & Rees are probably charging MCDH a pretty penny, which might make one sympathetic to the hospital's cause. Alternatively, Ms. Hardin and her one woman law firm have the David v. Goliath angle going for them.
A re-examination of Hardin's flings from May of 2018 displays a list of nearly forty individuals who may have “discoverable information” concerning the case. Among those listed are yours truly and Marianne McGee of Mendocino TV because of our frequent reportorial coverage of the hospital. All the other usual suspects are listed as well, from past board members, current board member Amy McColley (who was an employee then) to former CEO Bob Edwards and former CFO Wade Sturgeon.
Hardin has claimed the latter two harassed her on the job after she discovered billing fraud that Sturgeon was allegedly covering up. The list, therefore includes a goodly number of hospital employees with ties to billing issues, from the controller to accounts billing specialists to account billers, a payroll specialist, and the business office manager. Tucked away amid this lengthy list is the name of the then administrator of the hospital's North Coast Family Health Center (NCFHC). Next to the name is the claim that the NCFHC administrator made complaints against Sturgeon to Edwards and then MCDH Board President Steve Lund. The NCFHC administrator, obviously, also informed Hardin, then the HR chief, about these complaints.
This is interesting in hindsight, both as something supportive of Hardin's charges, but to note that, in spite of this, Edwards seemingly did all he could to keep Sturgeon on the job as CFO and, in turn, Lund backed Edwards all the way, including voting to give Edwards a contract extension just months before the public would have its say in electing four new members to the MCDH Board of Directors. Those new board members voted to dismiss Edwards in January, but as part of his contract the new board was forced to pay him one year's salary as a parting gift.
The latest filings show where the hospital's lawyers are headed in their defense efforts. Since last summer the Gordon & Rees attorneys have sought all of the records from Ms. Hardin's two previous employers. What they appear to be digging for is some sort of pattern in Hardin's employment that shows that she has repeatedly sought monetary relief through harassment claims or claims that higher-ups caused her intentional distress in the workplace.
The Gordon & Rees strategy becomes clear when one examines the transcripts of Ms. Hardin's deposition given in mid-January, 2019. Gordon & Rees attorney Fletcher Alford asked, “Have you experienced depression as a result of anything you attribute to Mendocino Hospital or people associated with the hospital?”
Hardin's response: “Well, I unexpectedly lost my job. Was that depressing and of concern to me? Absolutely.”
Later in the deposition, Alford hones in on Hardin's former employment at a hospital in Antelope Valley and her working relationship with a superior. Alford: “Do you feel like the way in which he was... his communication or management style caused you distress?”
Hardin: “What do you mean by "distress"?
Alford: “Emotional upset?”
Hardin: “I would say that it was confusing, and there were times when it was distressing to me.”
Alford continued in this vein through numerous queries. Many of which were objected to by Ms. Hardin's attorney, Twila White. Whether or not Hardin has made similar complaints of harassment regarding employers before she came to MCDH remains to be seen. She reached some type of non-disclosure agreement at one place. It's perfectly plausible that a woman in her fifties and sixties (as Hardin was at her last three jobs, including MCDH) might have encountered multiple forms of workplace harassment. One doesn't have to look far in the headlines to believe that to be true. Hardin's attorney appears to be working vigorously to concentrate the case on what happened at MCDH with the former CFO, CEO, and former President of the Board (who, though no longer chairing that board is still a member). The mini-revelation regarding the now departed administrator of the hospital's clinic's (NCFHC) charges against former CFO Sturgeon certainly lends backup to Hardin's claims.
The latest Gordon & Rees ploy is to demand that the court appoint a psychiatrist to give Ms. Hardin an examination (known in legal parlance as an Independent Medical Exam or IME). Gordon & Rees also just happen to have a psychiatrist that they would like to perform the exam. He is Dr. Mark Lipian, with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
A quick investigative search could not turn up how often Dr. Lipian has worked with Gordon & Rees before. An equally quick internet search did turn up a Yelp review of Dr. Lipian. Of course, Yelp reviews have to be taken with a large grain of salt because those who fill them out are apt to be shills or incredibly disgruntled. I include this disgruntled review only because the situation described bears similarities to the Hardin case. Perhaps it may prove somewhat germane. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
The author of the review is identified as “Mary O.” of Vallejo. She writes, “I was a plaintiff in a lawsuit and the defense counsel had me see Dr. Mark Lipian, a psychiatrist in San Francisco for an 'Independent Medical Exam' (IME), similar to an interrogation. I understand that Dr. Lipian was going to favor the defense, since that is what he is paid to do. His resume looked professional but I was hoping he would be honest. Fortunately for me, I brought my own recording device and recorded the entire 8 hour IME. He also recorded the 8 hour session with old fashioned tapes.
“It took awhile but I finally got a copy of his lengthy report and was shocked that his report listed false and exaggerated statements. Even the transcript I was provided was edited. The relevant points I made were blanked out listed only as (...). I was shocked that an alleged professional psychiatrist would do this.
“Fortunately I settled my lawsuit before trial and before I saw his falsified report. My best advice is if you are ever required to see Dr. Mark Lipian for an IME, BRING YOUR OWN RECORDING DEVICE [Mary O's emphasis] to debunk his lies at trial and/or bring a lawyer. You are authorized to do that under the law.
“I would never see such an unethical psychiatrist in private practice, knowing what he did.”