By Emily Garcia |
A woman who was assaulted in her condo across the street from the Augusta University (AU) Summerville campus two years ago is suing AU, its medical college and multiple university officials in their individual capacities for discrimination, retaliation and defamation.
Dr. Lesley Williams named President Brooks A. Keel, Chief Medical Officer of the AU Health System Dr. Phillip Coule and others as defendants in the lawsuit filed in Richmond County Superior Court on June 3, 2020.
Dr. Williams, a former second year anesthesiology resident at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG), was raped at knife-point in March of 2018. After the assault, the perpetrator robbed Dr. Williams and left her bound and gagged with her throat slit.
According to Dr. Williams’ complaint, she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after the attack and immediately began treatment and counseling with Dr. Amy House, an AU psychologist and associate professor.
In accordance with her treatment, Dr. Williams requested modified duty in her residency program until her PTSD symptoms improved.
The former second year resident said she was having difficulty focusing after the assault and informed her supervisors that she did not think it would be best for her to be in the operating room immediately after her attack.
Augusta University Medical Center (AUMC) administration assigned Dr. Williams to independent research for one month and then rotations in obstetrics and pediatrics in the months following.
Dr. Williams performed 109 procedures with supervision and received no complaints of poor performance during her obstetrics rotation, according to case documents.
In June of 2018, AUMC administration informed Dr. Williams that she would not be able to treat patients, even with supervisors, until she completed a “fit-for-duty” test, according to documents filed in the case.
Dr. Jeremy Hertza from a company called Lifeguard gave Williams the test that assessed her physical and mental capabilities.
The mental portion of the test included two neurological exams, both of which she passed in May of 2018. The physical portion of the test was not given until later in June of 2018.
Dr. Williams’ complaint further alleges that in early June of 2018, Anesthesiology Residency Department (ARD) officials, consisting of Dr. Steffan Meiler, department chair of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine, and Dr. Mary Arthur, a professor in the department of anesthesiology and Williams’ program director, also named as defendants in the lawsuit, notified Dr. Williams that since she was supposed to be observing patients instead of treating them she would need to alter and delete her patient case logs. The department officials also asked that Dr. Williams not to submit the case logs for credit to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), an international accreditation program for medical students, at the end of her residency.
According to Dr. Williams’ complaint, she was not comfortable with what the ARD was asking her to do and reported the ARD’s actions to the ACGME because she believed falsifying or failing to report her training violated accreditation standards of the residency program.
Williams said this incident was later cited in her termination as an incident that caused faculty to distrust her.
In June 2018, Williams fainted in the operating room.
Dr. Coule, vice president, chief medical officer for AUMC and defendant in Dr. Williams’ case, attended to her after she fainted. Dr. Coule asked Dr. Williams standard questions about her alcohol and drug usage, at which point she informed Dr. Coule that she was taking medication to treat her PTSD. The medication Williams took has the common side effect of low blood pressure and dehydration.
Dr. Coule then relayed information about Dr. Williams’ PTSD medication to members of the ARD and others at AUMC.
Shortly after Dr. Williams fainted, she took the physical portion of the fit-for-duty test and passed it. According to Dr. Williams, the physical portion assessed her motor skills, strength and coordination.
Later in June of 2018, Dr. Williams was scheduled to take a drug screening test at an outside company called Quest Diagnostics.
Dr. Williams said the drug test was added on to the fit for duty as a result of her fainting, since a random drug test could not be justified solely by her passing out.
According to her complaint, she was on her way to Quest Diagnostics when the ARD demanded that she return to AU to take the drug test in their facilities.
Upon returning to AU, Dr. Meiler and other members of the ARD asked Dr. Williams to sign a form stating that she was voluntarily taking the drug test, although Dr. Williams said she was told she would be terminated if she did not take the test.
In addition to testing for the standard panel of drugs, Dr. Meiler and other members of the ARD asked that her blood and urine samples be tested for operation room drugs as well, said Dr. Williams.
After the test, Dr. Williams’ hospital badge was confiscated, and she was told she could not come to work until her drug test results came back.
The former anesthesiology resident said she was not allowed to return to work for a month as she awaited results.
According to the complaint, Dr. Williams’ test results came back negative for all drugs other than those she was prescribed for PTSD. The test showed that she had not abused recreational, operation room, or other drugs.
By August 2018, Dr. Williams met with Dr. Walter Moore, interim chairman of the department of medicine and head of graduate medicine education, along with Drs. Meiler, Arthur, other members of the ARD and her Title IX advocate.
During the meeting, the defendants told Dr. Williams that she would not be allowed to return to work even though she had passed her fit-for-duty evaluation. The defendants suggested Williams perform a medical simulation exam, which Dr. Williams at first objected to, pointing out that her male colleagues were never made to jump through as many hoops as she was.
Dr. Williams references in her complaint an incident involving a male colleague who had a mental breakdown in the operating room, was placed on a mandatory two week leave and returned to work without taking a fit-for-duty test.
Wanting to return back to her job, Dr. Williams agreed to take the medical simulation test in November 2018 and was able to return to work shortly after.
A few months later in February 2019, the complaint Dr. Williams filed stated that AU accused Williams of “abnormal examination behavior” for having access to study materials during an in-training exam break, which was stated was the reason for the defendants to terminate her from her residency program.
Dr. Williams said that during her basic exam, which she likened to the SAT, she was allowed to look at study materials on her break. Dr. Williams said she assumed it would be okay to do so again on her in-training exam, which she likened to a progress exam. When AUMC administrators told her she had cheated on both her basic and in-training exam, she called both the testing center and the ABA, who both verified that she was allowed to access study materials during her basic exam.
The former anesthesiology resident said she even walked into a meeting with her supervisors with the ABA on the phone. She said Dr. Meiler told her he wasn’t going to speak with the person on the phone and proceeded to terminate her.
The decision to terminate came roughly one year after Dr. Williams was raped.
In accordance with AU procedure, Dr. Williams was able to challenge the decision to terminate and did so in an ad hoc committee hearing in May 2019.
Dr. Williams said the ad hoc committee consisted of three people from the hospital outside of the ARD.
The ARD presented the committee with multiple reasons why Dr. Williams should be fired, many of which the former resident said she had never heard any complaint of prior.
Dr. Williams presented her side of the story afterward, and the committee found the termination unwarranted and suggested that the ARD and Williams improve their line of communication.
The committee’s findings were submitted to MCG Dean David C. Hess.
The committee recommended Hess reinstate Dr. Williams to continue her residency plan with a few suggestions to help her succeed, such as assigning her a new mentor and a clear performance improvement plan.
Hess agreed with the committee’s findings, overturned the proposed termination and ordered Dr. Williams to be reinstated.
Then, Dr. Williams said Drs. Moore and Meiler sent an email that informed her that they planned to appeal the committee’s decision not to terminate. A few days later another email was sent to Dr. Williams that said Drs. Moore and Meiler were no longer planning to pursue an appeal.
Dr. Williams was scheduled to go back to work on Wednesday June 5, 2019 because Monday, June 3, 2019 her program director Dr. Arthur would be finishing a long shift and could not meet with her and on Tuesday, June 4, 2019 Dr. Williams had a doctor’s appointment.
On Monday, Dr. Williams received a calendar invite for a mandatory faculty meeting, which she thought was strange since Dr. Arthur was not able to meet with her that day.
Dr. Williams said she returned to work on Wednesday to be handed a letter terminating her privileges to practice medicine by Dr. Coule, despite the committee’s recommendations, along with a letter supporting this decision by Dean Hess.
Dr. Williams tried to appeal to Dr. Brooks Keel, president of Augusta University, citing her claim of sex discrimination and retaliation for reporting what she believed to be illegal activity to ACGME. Dr. Keel upheld the decision to terminate.
Dr. Williams said she later found out that Dr. Coule was sent a number of bad evaluations about her, dated by faculty members for June 3, 2019, the date of the mandatory faculty meeting.
Additionally, a few months prior to the termination, Dr. Williams sought to transfer into another residency position at HCA Healthcare in Tampa, Fl.
Dr. Williams said she drove to Tampa after completing an initial interview to meet with residents and participate in a second interview.
However, Dr. Williams was withdrawn from the process when the interviewer said they had spoken with Dr. Williams’ department chairman and were informed of a “drug problem” Dr. Williams had.
The former second year resident is suing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to make up for loss of income, loss of future income, emotional distress and court fees but said her main priority is reinstatement. Dr. Williams said her earning potential as an anesthesiologist is $20 million.
Williams’ attorney, Tanya Jeffords, sent out summons to Drs. Keel, Coule, Arthur, Moore and Meiler on June 8, 2020.
Defendants have not yet responded to Williams’ complaint and have 30 days to do so. Associate Vice President of Communications at AU Christen Engel said AU does not comment on pending litigation.*An earlier version of this cited an incident in Williams’ complaint.
Contact Emily Garcia at EMGARCIA@augusta.edu.