PORTLAND — A Maine Medical Center employee is accusing the hospital of retaliating against him for raising concerns about a tradition of taking male residents and fellows to a strip club for lap dances during an out-of-state conference.
Patrick O’Brien is suing in Cumberland County Superior Court, seeking compensatory and punitive damages for harm including emotional distress and damage to his reputation. He claims that his department head became hostile, and that he was transferred in retaliation and was no longer treated fairly.
In November 2009, a resident at the hospital complained to the chief resident that her husband, also a resident, was uncomfortable about the strip club tradition but felt he had to participate, according to the complaint filed last month.
The conversation happened in the office of O’Brien, who was then administrative director of the Department of Family Medicine, according to the document.
O’Brien spoke to another female physician, who said she arrived at the conference in Rhode Island after the strip club visit because she didn’t want to be associated with it, even though female residents and faculty members were sent back to the hotel while the men went out, according to the document.
According to the complaint, O’Brien feared the outings violated the ethics of the hospital and federal and state laws. He believed that the pressure to participate constituted sexual harassment by creating a hostile working environment.
O’Brien filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. The complaint was dismissed in March, after the investigator found no reasonable grounds to believe the hospital had illegally retaliated against him for complaining of illegal activity.
Some of the conclusions contradict O’Brien’s allegations, including whether the men at the strip club felt pressured to be there.
The hospital said in a prepared statement that it had not been served with O’Brien’s complaint, but “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. After thorough investigation, the Commission appropriately dismissed Mr. O’Brien’s claims as without reasonable cause.”
O’Brien claims that two department leaders, Dr. William Dexter and Dr. Mark Bouchard, arranged the outings. Dexter is director of the sports medicine program and Bouchard is a sports medicine faculty member and medical director of the family medicine residency program, according to the hospital’s website.
O’Brien raised his concerns during a department leadership forum in December. On his next work day, he alleges, his department chief, Dr. Ann Skelton, got angry, said he had no authority over doctors and accused him of humiliating others.
O’Brien felt he would be made a scapegoat, according to the complaint. He offered to quit but ended up staying on and felt he was “ostracized, belittled and criticized for even the smallest of errors.”
In August 2011, O’Brien learned that his position was being eliminated. He had the choice of leaving or accepting a new position of director of special projects.
O’Brien was moved into an isolated area on an attic floor. The complaint describes his office as a makeshift space five floors away from the rest of the Department of Medical and Academic Affairs, musty smelling and frequented by bats.
In her report to the Human Rights Commission, investigator Angela Tizon concluded that O’Brien could not demonstrate that the hospital had a problem with his report. The hospital investigated and found that no one felt coerced into going to the strip club.
Two physician managers in sports medicine were disciplined with written warnings and letters, according to the investigator. The two are unnamed, but one is referred to as “Dr. MB.” Mandatory training on sexual harassment and other ethical issues was implemented.
The investigator also wrote that O’Brien did not show how his job transfer was negative, given that he has the same salary and benefits at a time when other directors were laid off because of a budget crisis.
O’Brien was not at work Monday and did not return a call to his home. His lawyer, Barbara Goodwin, did not return calls seeking comment.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]