Former resident at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center Thersia Knapik has filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming that she was wrongfully terminated for reporting a coworker for ethics violations. Knapik worked in DHMC's plastic surgery department for five years as an intern and later as a resident.
Knapik was fired last June after reporting a fellow surgical resident at DHMC, according to a complaint filed by her lawyer in the Vermont District Court.
The resident received a probation letter from the director of her residency program due to concerns about her competence and professionalism, according to the lawsuit. The reported resident was cited as not adequately knowing "the steps of the operations [they] were performing."
After the resident omitted this letter from her application to a fellowship program, Knapik reported her colleague, citing doubts about her integrity.
Knapik was fired shortly before the residency program's graduation in June, according to Norman Watts, Knapik's lawyer.
The resident received a "quality assurance letter," not a disciplinary one, representatives from DHMC stated in court documents. Court documents indicate that the hospital fired Knapik because she engaged in "behavior incompatible with the role of a physician and counter to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Code of Ethical Conduct."
Knapik said she felt ethically obliged to report the resident's omission and prioritized her integrity as a physician over institutional policies, according to the complaint.
Watts cited DHMC's accreditation by the American Medical Association as justification for Knapik's actions. The AMA's code of ethics mandates that a physician report any unethical behavior in their colleagues, he said.
DHMC fired Knapik the day before she completed her residency program, according to Watts.
After Knapnik was dismissed, the hospital contacted the University of Miami and Knapik was unable to pursue her plans for a fellowship there.
DHMC refused to help Knapik find a fellowship elsewhere, effectively ending her career in medicine, according to Watts.
"Now, we find the medical academic world totally rebuffing her," he said.
Knapik's defense is requesting full compensation for the damages related to her dismissal and subsequent inability to pursue a medical career, Watts said. These costs include punitive damages, attorney and court fees and other sanctions as determined by the jury.
"Her earning power as a specialized surgeon would have been very significant. easily in the millions," he said.Watts declined to comment on the details of the case beyond the court documents, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
Knapik now lives in the Upper Valley area, but does not have a job as a medical professional, according to Watts.
"It appears that her career is over, even though she completed the five years required for the residency program with high marks," he said.
DHMC does not comment on individual academic decisions or ongoing judicial processes, spokesperson Rick Adams said in an email.
"By way of background, Dartmouth-Hitchcock has many academic training programs for doctors, called residency programs, all of which have very high standards to ensure all who receive our training are outstanding future physicians medically, professionally and ethically," he said.
DHMC responded to Knapik's complaint by stating that no professional standards motivated Knapik to report her colleague and that Knapik's conduct caused any damages she experienced, according to court documents.
Watts said he has been involved in lawsuits against DHMC in the past. The firm's most recent case against the hospital occurred two months ago, during which DHMC was accused of overbilling the government, Watts said. The case was settled, and DHMC paid roughly $2.2 million to the state of Vermont, the state of New Hampshire and federal health programs.
The suit coincides with two other lawsuits against DHMC's residency programs. Jennifer Connors, a former resident in the psychiatric department, is suing on the grounds that she was discriminated against because of her documented attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Former DHMC resident Jeffrey Isaacs is suing DHMC for alleged coercion, stress and abuse that left him in a state of mental shock and resulted in wrongful termination
Staff reporter Zan Song contributed reporting for this article.