Three pediatric emergency room physicians with an average age of 55 filed an age discrimination suit on Oct. 28 against their former employer Hackensack Meridian Health.
Doctors Usha Avva, Nina Gold and Kathleen Reichard were the oldest full-time pediatricians employed in Hackensack University Medical Center’s emergency department when they were terminated and escorted off property on Feb. 17, according to a complaint filed in Essex County Superior Court. The suit alleges that the three women were the only full-time physicians board certified in Pediatric Emergency Medicine at HUMC when they were fired. According to the complaint, they were told the terminations were due to business needs occasioned by decreased patient volumes during the pandemic. The complaint notes that younger pediatricians who had been recently hired and were not PEM board certified were retained.
The plaintiffs are represented by McMoran, O’Connor, Bramley & Burns PC of Iselin and Manasquan.
Dr. Joseph Underwood, chair of emergency medicine; Dr. David Walker, division chief of pediatric emergency services; Dr. Judy Aschner, former chair of pediatrics; Dr. Antonio Thomas, associate division chief of pediatric emergency services; and then-team member relations professional Marwah Durum are also listed as defendants.
In summer 2019, HUMC hired three new pediatric emergency medicine physicians under 40 years old, and in September 2020, the hospital hired two more ages 34 and 35. None of these doctors were board certified in PEM, according to the complaint. Five months later, those who were—Avva, Gold and Reichard, then ages 56, 55 and 53—were let go.
“This is brazen age discrimination by the largest hospital system in the state,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Bruce McMoran. “Our clients were frontline healthcare heroes, they gave decades of service to this hospital, but in the end they were escorted from the property by security, unable to say goodbye to their colleagues, and told they were terminated because of a reduction in force necessitated by ‘business needs.’ That is unbelievable considering the hospital had recently hired five younger PEM physicians and patient volume had already begun rising in the wake of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
According to the complaint, the defendants created spreadsheets purporting to objectively rate and rank the hospital’s PEM physicians in clinical and non-clinical categories. No consideration was given to PEM board certification, seniority, or years of experience.
“It is not believable that this exercise resulted in the three oldest physicians receiving the three lowest ratings. That is too much of a coincidence,” the complaint said. “Rather, the spreadsheets were a termination tool designed to support an ageist decision that the defendants had already made.”
Avva, who previously served as interim division chief of the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Department from November 2016 to November 2018, had worked at Hackensack Meridian for more than 19 years.
Gold had worked for HMH for more than 15 years, and Reichard had worked for HMH for more than two and half years.
“The treatment our clients received would have been devastating at any time, but for Hackensack Meridian to discard them like this after 2020, after they put their lives on the line treating children and adults alike, is unconscionable,” said Michael O’Connor, plaintiffs’ co-counsel.
“In May of 2020 HUMC received over $98 million in federal stimulus funds … in February of 2021, they fired our clients, the three oldest doctors in the department, due to ‘business needs.’ It’s more than insulting and disrespectful. It is blatant age discrimination and our clients won’t stand for it,” he continued.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits age-based workplace discrimination for all applicants or employees 18 and older. NJLAD’s age discrimination laws were beefed up recently with amendments signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy on Oct. 5 that prohibit forced retirement and eliminate an employer’s right to refuse to hire or promote applicants above age 70. On the federal level, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits age discrimination against applicants or employees age 40 or older
A spokesperson for HMH declined to respond, citing a company policy not to comment on pending litigation.