You might know her as a fitness guru or motivational speaker. Her fans say Chalene Johnson has helped them lead their best lives.
But she says she’s now using her platform for patient advocacy after what she says she experienced with a well-known plastic surgeon. The surgeon denies the allegations, and he’s suing her for defamation.
She and more than 30 former patients are suing him for medical malpractice. In the process her story is once again drawing attention to the California Medical Board and a patient’s ability to check their doctor’s history.
It’s a problem the NBC-4 I-team has followed for years, from the time it takes the Board to complete investigations, to the punishments it hands down.
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"Every time I look in the mirror, I see his work," Johnson said. "I see what he subjected me to and it’s devastating."
It all started with her desire for smaller breast implants and a revision of her C-section scar. She said she thought she’d carefully vetted her surgeon, Dr. Arian Mowlavi, also known as Dr. Laguna.
"I checked to make sure, okay is he licensed, is he in good standing," Johnson said. "I go search the internet to see what the reviews are. They are all glowing. And of course, I talked to other past patients who all had really great things to say, so I felt good about all of this."
But she said she felt uneasy from the initial consultation.
"I kept dismissing those voices in my head," Johnson said, telling herself, "He’s an artist, they’re eccentric and you’re just being a prude."
About a week after surgery, Johnson spoke about it on her podcast:
“I don’t have any complications, in fact I am quite happy with my results, but I am really unhappy with the experience," Johnson said.
A few days later, the bandages came off and she said she realized she’d made a horrible mistake.
"I was upset with myself for having made the decision and then realizing that the person who I had entrusted, who I had paid top dollar to, hadn’t listened to anything I’d said and was careless and reckless," Johnson said. "I woke up with a scar from hip to hip from a C-section scar I was trying to revise."
Johnson said she then discovered a new addition on Dr. Mowlavi’s licensing page on the Medical Board of California’s website. It was posted on August 25, 2021, just three weeks after Johnson's surgery.
The executive director of the Medical Board of California filed an accusation against Dr. Mowlavi related to the death of a patient, citing a diagnosis of "hemorrhage from surgical intervention leading to cardiac arrest and cerebral anoxia" and alleging that Dr. Mowlavi "committed gross negligence in his care and treatment of Patient A which included (allowing) surgical techs to perform liposuction."
Even more startling to Johnson, the surgery and death described in the accusation had actually happened three years earlier, in August 2018.
"It’s sad to me that the California Medical Board, they say that their mission is to protect patients, but to think that even to this day it’s really almost impossible for people to find anything about that case," Johnson said.
According to court records, in August 2020 the family of the woman who died reached a million dollar settlement with Dr. Mowlavi.
However until October 2022, at a quick glance Dr. Mowlavi’s record with the Medical Board appeared clear.
"I don’t know what legislators need to get involved, but the laws have to change because we have to protect patients," Johnson said.
Johnson said she felt she needed to take action, sharing her story and concerns on her social media platforms. She soon learned she apparently wasn’t alone.
"Women started flooding my inbox saying, 'I know who you’re talking about, just based on what you described.'"
She said she’s talked to more than 50 former patients and filed her own complaint with the Medical Board. But as of the end of October, she’d had no response from the Board.
In response to questions from the I-team, the Medical Board says it cannot address or even confirm active investigations because they are confidential by law.
"I don’t know what it’s going to take for the Medical Board to take action," Johnson said.
She and more than 30 other former patients are now suing Dr. Mowlavi. The complaint includes allegations of battery, medical malpractice, negligent hiring, training and supervision. The filing also includes graphic images after surgery of some of the women suing, and screen shots of video from the doctor’s operating room.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys say that was provided by a sales rep who says the video she took shows a surgical tech performing liposuction as Dr. Mowlavi – unmasked-- held his fists beneath the patient.
Dr. Mowlavi responded in a separate court filing contending the video is "irrelevant" saying the sales rep is not a physician and "they do not understand what they are seeing." As for post-surgery pictures, Dr. Mowlavi said they are "not an accurate depiction of the surgery’s result."
That filing was made in Dr. Mowlavi's lawsuit against Johnson for defamation, in which he contends her Instagram posts and podcasts are "patently false" saying, "Under the guise of helping others [she] has weaponized her marketing experience and social platform of 700,000+ followers by exploiting a falsified medical experience with plaintiff Dr. Mowlavi for her own financial gain and notoriety.”
Both suits are currently on hold because of a bankruptcy filing by Dr. Mowlavi. But despite the defamation suit, Johnson said she’s not keeping quiet.
"I’ve been fortunate to have had a very successful career in large part because of my community of women, so I feel a responsibility to protect them," Johnson said. "Every time I stop talking about it, then I learn that some else has gone to see him. I know I shouldn’t feel guilty about that, but I do. It’s not about my results, its about protecting the public."
Just days after the interview with Johnson, the Medical Board of California published a decision in the case related to the 2018 patient death. The decision adopts a stipulated settlement which was not an admission of guilt. The disciplinary order includes:
- A 90 day suspension of Dr. Mowlavi’s license
- 10 years probation
- A doctor must monitor Mowlavi’s practice
- He’s prohibited from performing or participating in VASER Liposcution surgeries until completing a clinical competence assessment program.
The I-team reached out to Dr. Mowlavi’s attorneys who handled the settlement over the patient death, the Medical Board case and the current litigation. They did not respond to our request for comment. The lawyer representing Dr. Mowlavi in his defamation suit against Johnson declined to comment on the record.