Dismissed physicians say firings were unjustified Doctors allege breach of contract by Hopkins

October 26, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

An eminent pediatric cardiologist, fired 10 months after being brought to Johns Hopkins Medical School with her husband to resuscitate an ailing subspecialty, yesterday told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury that she had done nothing there to harm patients.

Dr. Rebecca Snider and Dr. Samuel B. Ritter are suing Hopkins for breach of contract, alleging they had been effectively tenured when they were fired in October 1994. Hopkins contends their tenure was never formally approved, so they could be let go without a reason.

In an opening statement in the doctors' trial this week, Hopkins attorney Joseph Finnerty said the couple misdiagnosed patients, caused morale in their division to plummet and refused to accept criticism. He said there was no choice but for Hopkins officials to tell them to leave, 10 months after they began work in January 1994.

The case centers on how real, legally, are promises and gestures made in the competitive world of academic recruitment. Mr. Finnerty said many candidates for professorships come to Hopkins understanding that they may not be formally tenured.

Marvin Ellin, the doctors' attorney, said the university's conduct led Drs. Ritter and Snider to believe they would be at Hopkins for life before they resigned tenured professorships with Cornell University and Duke University, respectively, to move to Baltimore.

Dr. Ritter was to be director of pediatric cardiology and a professor in the division. Dr. Snider was to be a professor specializing in echocardiography, a method of creating images of the heart using sound waves.

Mr. Ellin said the couple were victims of a campaign of character assassination by Dr. Jean Kan, who now has Dr. Ritter's job as head of pediatric cardiology. Dr. Kan, he charged, was a specialist in catheterization, a procedure that was being rapidly displaced by echocardiography.

Dr. Kan also was jealous of extra space being planned for Dr. Snider's laboratory, so she spread rumors that Drs. Snider and Ritter had approved a policy of oversedating babies, Mr. Ellin said.

Dr. Snider testified that she was "in shock" when she was handed a letter of termination. She said she had not misdiagnosed patients or put any of them at risk with her treatment.

"I said to [Dr. Kan] that nothing we had ever done was for anything but better patient care," she said yesterday.

To that, Dr. Kan replied that if the couple would get "psychotherapy," she would speak to someone about their staying on, Dr. Snider said. But by that time, word of the sudden dismissals had spread throughout the small national community of pediatric cardiologists, and the doctors' reputations were ruined, she said.

Dr. Snider said she has been unable to find work since the firings, and that universities that once courted her now will not grant interviews. Conferences will not invite her to speak, and companies are not soliciting her consulting work, she said.

"We applied for every job we could find listed," she said. "For the coming year, I've been invited to give not a single lecture, as opposed to my usual 10 to 20."

Mr. Finnerty said faculty members would testify that Dr. Ritter did not show up for meetings or return phone calls, and that when he did interact with colleagues, he treated them in a "bizarre" manner. He said Dr. Snider was arrogant and dismissive of any suggestions for patient treatment that didn't match her own. When faculty members tried to talk to Dr. Ritter about the problems, he dismissed the warnings, Mr. Finnerty said.

"You're going to hear how there were cases that led to misdiagnosis, putting seriously ill babies at risk," he said. "The morale kept spiraling down. The reputation within the institution was going down."

But Dr. Snider said yesterday she was never warned of any problems with her performance.

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