A former Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center doctor is suing USC, alleging he lost his job in 2019 in retaliation for complaining that his supervisor was interfering with patient care and ignoring the wishes of individuals, including those of a young man with leukemia who preferred to die rather than continue treatments.
Dr. Mojtaba Akhtari's Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit also names Dr. Preet Chaudhary as a defendant and seeks unspecified damages. The allegations in the lawsuit filed Wednesday include retaliation, defamation and false light invasion of privacy.
A USC representative issued a one-sentence statement, saying: "We believe the claims in the lawsuit are baseless."
Local news from across Southern California
USC hired Akhtari as an associate professor of clinical medicine in July 2014 at an annual salary of $275,000 and assigned Chaudhary as his mentor, according to his suit, which says he excelled as a hematologist-oncologist and had a reputation as one of the most productive physicians at Norris who provided "world-class palliative care" and received the 2014-2015 Keck Faculty Teaching Award.
A month before Akhtari began working at USC, Chaudary was disciplined for interfering with and disrespecting patients' right to choose their medical care, but he continued to engage in the same behavior after Akhtari was hired, the suit alleges.
"From the start of plaintiff's employment at USC, he witnessed Chaudhary behaving inappropriately and unethically," the complaint alleges.
While abroad in July 2014, Chaudhary communicated with Dr. James Shen about patients and gave medical orders even though he could not physically assess the patients' needs, the suit alleges. He also changed a patient's antibiotics by phone without notifying the attending doctor, according to the plaintiff.
Akhtari was on inpatient service at the time and asked Chaudhary to cease interfering with patient care because he was violating hospital rules and making matters unsafe for patients, but Chaudhary kept on doing so, the suit alleges.
In October 2014, a young patient with advanced acute lymphoblastic leukemia asked to be put on comfort care and allowed to die peacefully, but Chaudhary tried to convince the patient to reconsider and asked Akhtari to support his actions, according to the complaint.
When Akhtari refused to side with Chaudhary, his mentor "threatened to interfere by communicating directly with the patient," the suit alleges.
Other nurses, a physician's assistant and a social worker all supported the patient's choice and asked Akhtari to intervene, according to the plaintiff's court papers. To defuse the dispute, Akhtari says he drove to the hospital at 9 p.m. and enlisted the help of Dr. Stephanie Hall, Keck's chief medical officer.
A physician's assistant who also complained about Chaudhary's alleged treatment of patients was fired shortly after doing so, the suit states.
Although Chaudhary was eventually barred from seeing patients for a year, the discipline "served as a catalyst for heightened harassment and abuse from Chaudhary toward physicians and patients alike," the suit states.
USC "willingly acceded to and assisted Chaudhary in his determination to bully the medical staff into accepting his interference, or to purge the medical staff of anyone who disagreed with his medical opinions...," the suit alleges.
Akhtari was placed on leave in February 2019 after Chaudhary claimed that the plaintiff wanted to use a particular drug for a patient without disclosing a professional relationship with the pharmaceutical company, according to his court papers.
That same month, Akhtari wrote a complaint detailing years of Chaudhary's alleged unprofessional behavior and retaliatory conduct, but matters "languished for months with no resolution," according to the suit.
Last June, Akhtari received a letter stating that he was exonerated, but that same month, USC declined to renew the plaintiff's contract and provided no reason for doing so, the suit says.
Akhtari alleges that USC offered him a "six-figure payment" in exchange for his silence about his frustrations, but he declined the offer.