Hospital Resident Fired for Having Cancer, Says Lawsuit

Nick Mulcahy

September 07, 2016

Stephanie Waggel, MD, a former psychiatry resident at George Washington (GW) Hospital in Washington, DC, is suing her ex-employer over unlawful workplace practices that occurred after she was diagnosed with kidney cancer, according to a lawsuit filed in July.

The suit says that once the hospital became aware of the cancer, it began to "engage in a pattern of discriminatory conduct" against her.

Dr Waggel, who started her residency in 2014, was dismissed from the program in May 2016 and was thus effectively fired from her job.

Her troubles with GW began, the lawsuit alleges, about a year earlier, in the spring of 2015. At that time, Dr Waggel underwent a medical workup for a kidney mass, which turned out to be malignant.

After her diagnosis, Dr Waggel, who worked more than 100 hours a week as a resident, initially received permission to attend her medical appointments.

However, an event took place that triggered ongoing discrimination against her, says the lawsuit.

On June 10, Dr Waggel reported to work on an emergency department rotation at GW Hospital in the morning. She attempted to find someone to cover for her because shortly after the end of her shift, at 3:00 pm, she was scheduled to have a medical appointment to discuss her need for a nephrectomy. Dr Waggel also informed GW staff that she was feeling "quite ill" and missed some time during the shift because of illness. She was unable to secure a replacement and so worked until the end of her shift that day.

"GW began to discriminate against Plaintiff on the basis of her medical condition almost immediately thereafter," says the lawsuit.

First, GW and her supervisor, Lisa Catapano, MD, who was then head of GW's psychiatric residency program, issued a "letter of deficiency" to Dr Waggel on July 15, approximately 1 month after the medical appointment to discuss a nephrectomy. The letter incorrectly stated that Dr Waggel did not appear for work or answer telephone calls on June 10, alleges the lawsuit.

On July 20, Dr Waggel underwent a partial nephrectomy and then went on approved medical leave for 10 days.

After the medical leave, GW "embarked upon a pattern of retaliation and discriminatory treatment," says the suit. The court document provides alleged examples.

In August, Dr Waggel witnessed a suicide attempt but was denied trauma counseling. Employees in similar situations "were routinely afforded such counseling," says the suit. Furthermore, she was exposed to blood from another suicide attempt but was never informed of the patient's HIV status.

The suit also describes Dr Waggel's repeated and unsuccessful attempts to meet with GW officials and resolve the letter of deficiency as well as a second letter of deficiency that was issued after the patient suicide incident.

In September, Dr Waggel rotated through Children's Hospital in Washington, DC. "During that time, she received positive feedback for her work and she continued to perform at or above expected levels," says the lawsuit, adding that Dr Waggel was "at all times...able to fulfill the essential functions of her employment as a psychiatric resident."

On October 19-20, Dr Waggel took additional sick leave for testing to see whether her malignancy had spread. Despite receiving approval from GW officials, Dr Waggel was informed on October 22 that because of the days she had taken off for testing, she would have to repeat an earlier rotation, owing to the fact that the time off was scheduled when she was due to take an approved licensing exam.

In November, Dr Waggel began a forced administrative leave, which in combination with her earlier sick leave for testing allegedly caused her to fail two classes.

In the subsequent months, Dr Waggel's wrangling with GW officials continued. She unsuccessfully attempted to transfer to another program but did not receive needed help from GW, the suit claims.

In the ensuing months, Dr Waggel filed a Family Medical Leave Act claim with the Department of Labor. In March, she also communicated to GW, via correspondence to Dr Catapano, that she had filed a discrimination claim with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Not long thereafter, in May, Dr Waggel was fired and was left in a kind of medical training limbo.

"Because GW has refused to allow [Dr Waggel] to progress to the PGY [resident physician] 3 year, and because GW has dismissed [Dr Waggel] from the residency program, it would be virtually impossible for [Dr Waggel] to transfer into another residency program," reads the lawsuit.

In the suit, Dr Waggel is seeking to redress "deprivation and interference of rights" secured by the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, and the DC Family and Medical Leave Act.

The suit is seeking a jury trial and compensation of at least $300,000 for "employment discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate," according to filings in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

In a news article in the Washington Post on the lawsuit that appeared this week, a GW official defended the university.

"We are dedicated to supporting our medical residents suffering from health conditions and have programs in place to assist them," said Anne Banner, a university spokesperson. "It is important to understand that Dr Waggel's account of her dismissal from the psychiatry residency program reflects only her allegations."

On the day of her dismissal, Dr Waggel wrote a letter to Pamela Wible, MD, a family physician in Eugene, Oregon, who is an advocate for mental health support for physicians, to discuss issues that she believes transcend the particulars of her circumstances. The letter, which was published online, reveals that her attending physician at GW told her on the day of her cancer diagnosis, "You need to choose whether you are a doctor or a patient."

Dr Waggel rejects this binary setup, arguing, "I want future physicians to not be forced to choose between being a doctor or a patient." Sometimes, doctors are both, she says.

Follow Medscape senior journalist Nick Mulcahy on Twitter: @MulcahyNick

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