A physical therapist filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Corvallis Clinic, alleging that the facility defied two of Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders that aimed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and conserve personal protective equipment last spring.
by Seth Jagger Kaeser, which was filed on Monday in Benton County Circuit Court, accuses the clinic of wrongful termination and retaliation. It says the company defied state orders by encouraging physical therapists to treat their patients in the office to increase revenue. It also says the clinic did not comply with the state’s requirement that businesses follow rules on social distancing and wearing masks.
The Corvallis Clinic did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The for-profit company, with 10 locations and more than 100 providers, describes itself on its website as the “largest independent physician-led medical group in the mid-Willamette Valley.”
The lawsuit cites two of Brown’s early executive orders in response to the pandemic. The first, published on March 19, ordered health care providers to postpone non-urgent procedures in order to conserve personal protective equipment and keep hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. The second, published on March 23, ordered businesses to allow telecommuting but when that was not possible to designate an employee to “establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies, consistent with guidance from the Oregon Health Authority.”
Kaeser, who had been on a camping trip, returned to the office after the second order was announced, the suit says. It says he worked at a community health clinic owned by the clinic in Corvallis.
“When he returned to work, he found that virtually none of the employees were physically distancing or wearing masks,” the suit says.
It adds that the workstations were so close together that physical therapists were “almost elbow to elbow” and that nothing had been done to ensure social distancing or remote work.
“In short, defendant had not taken any apparent measures at all to comply with (executive order 20-10),” the suit says.
But what concerned Kaeser the most was an April 1 meeting called by his supervisor, Gary Michael Gray, for physical therapists and support staff, the suit says. Gray told staff that the clinic was experiencing financial troubles because of a massive drop-off in appointments and that the therapists needed to assure their patients that they weren’t at risk for COVID-19 if they came into the office, the suit says. Gray said the therapists should use their professional judgment on whether to treat patients but that their “continued employment” would hinge on “their success in bringing in patients for billable in-person visits,” the complaint alleges.
“The clear subtext to Mr. Gray’s statements was that the Corvallis Clinic expected the physical therapists to maximize in-person services, regardless of the COVID-19 risk, to increase revenue for the clinic,” the suit says.
Kaeser objected to the conditions in the office, the suit says, and told Gray that nothing had been done to modify the work environment. In response, Gray said he could go on temporary furlough, which he did, the complaint says.
Kaeser learned that he had been fired in a letter dated May 21, the suit says. He had worked at the clinic since February 2013, the suit says.
The complaint was filed by Luke Kuzava, an attorney with the Eugene-based Access the Law firm, a nonprofit which serves poor clients. It says that Kaeser has suffered lost income and will continue to suffer lost benefits and economic damages along with mental and emotional distress. It seeks $82,000 in economic damages, $100,000 in compensatory damages for mental and emotional distress and reimbursement of attorneys’ fees.
The complaint seeks a jury trial.
You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.