Health system sues lawyer over alleged scheme to 'bring UPMC down'
March 15, 2017 5:16 PM
By Jonathan D. Silver / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UPMC, the region’s dominant healthcare system, has sued a Pittsburgh lawyer in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, accusing him of conspiring with a former patient in a scheme to “bring UPMC down.”
The suit, which was filed Tuesday, claims that attorney Michael O’Day engaged in “high-pressure” tactics to stoke fear among some patients — all suffering from an uncommon brain condition — over procedures performed on them by a UPMC neurosurgeon. UPMC alleges that Mr. O’Day’s goal was to make money through litigation and damage relationships between UPMC and its patients.
Mr. O’Day, according to the suit, was in “gross violation” of the state Rules of Professional Conduct that govern lawyers in Pennsylvania. It claims that he went outside the bounds of professional conduct in his efforts to drum up litigants for possible legal action against UPMC and Ghassan Bejjani, a neurosurgeon working for a UPMC subsidiary, who operated on patients for what is known as a Chiari malformation, a defect that causes the brain to extend into the spinal canal and causes a variety of symptoms.
Mr. O’Day on Wednesday derided the lawsuit as “baseless” and “frivolous”
He scoffed at the notion that he, a sole practitioner, could bring down an $11.5 billion enterprise.
Mr. O’Day has not sued UPMC or Dr. Bejjani, but he acknowledged that he is preparing a suit and has been in touch with UPMC lawyers to try to reach a settlement.
Mr. O’Day said he viewed the suit as a pre-emptive strike by UPMC to prevent him from litigating issues involving Dr. Bejjani, such as whether surgery he performed on roughly a dozen patients suffering from Chiari malformation was necessary and whether the patients were properly informed that a plate would be inserted in their skulls as part of the operation.
“This is an attempt to intimidate me and my clients,” Mr. O’Day said.
The suit was filed by the Pittsburgh firm Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Boscik & Raspanti on behalf of UPMC, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside and the subsidiary UPMC Community Medicine Inc.
It accuses Mr. O'Day of tortious interference with contractual relations and prospective contractual relations and civil conspiracy. The suit seeks an injunction against Mr. O’Day that would forbid him from soliciting UPMC patients as clients and from interfering with relationships between doctors and hospitals on the one hand, and patients on the other.
UPMC is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as a jury trial.
The suit claims that Mr. O’Day “recruited at least one purported former patient of UPMC and Dr. Bejjani to solicit other UPMC patients for a purported lawsuit attacking Dr. Bejjani and his Chiari procedures.”
To carry out the alleged scheme, the suit said, Mr. O’Day arranged with a woman identified only as “Jane Doe” to solicit UPMC patients earlier this year to join in his planned complaint, all in violation of rules governing attorney conduct. The suit accused Mr. O’Day of making statements that “would falsely indicate to patients that they had sustained injuries at the hands of UPMC and Dr. Bejjani, to create intense and unwarranted fear about the state of their health.”
Mr. O’Day directed Jane Doe to contact a woman referred to as “Patient A,” the suit said. Dr. Bejjani operated on both Patient A and her daughter to treat Chiari malformation following a lengthy period of treatment and consultation, according to UPMC. The suit claims that Jane Doe gave “false and misleading” information to Patient A “in an obvious effort to poison her opinion of UPMC and Dr. Bejjani, and to coerce Patient A and her daughter to join the purported ‘lawsuit.’ “
UPMC, however, claimed that Patient A and her daughter were both “satisfied” with their care, rejected Mr. O’Day’s alleged efforts to have them join in a lawsuit, and were not pressured by Dr. Bejjani.
Mr. O’Day denied that he solicited anyone to act as his agent. He said Jane Doe — whom he declined to identify — is his client and said she encountered Patient A through a Facebook forum for people who have Chiari malformation.
UPMC’s attorneys declined comment Wednesday as did Paul Wood, a UPMC spokesman.
The suit notes that Mr. O’Day has history with UPMC. Mr. O’Day previously represented the parents of Michael Schaab, an employee killed during a mass shooting in 2012 at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, a part of UPMC.
A legal dispute over money arose between Mr. O’Day and a Pittsburgh law firm, Farrell & Reisinger, which had originally represented the Schaabs in their negotiations for a settlement with UPMC. A Common Pleas Court judge sided with Farrell & Reisinger, and his decision was upheld on appeal.
Referencing the previous legal tangle, UPMC’s suit claimed that Mr. O’Day “has engaged in troubling conduct aimed at extorting money from UPMC by driving a wedge between UPMC and its patients...”
The 17-page suit contains a passing reference over three paragraphs to Mr. O’Day obtaining a copy of a federal complaint against UPMC — a public document — from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Kris Mamula.
Jonathan D. Silver: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg.
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