A Las Vegas investigator with the state Board of Medical Examiners was sexually harassed by her boss and retaliated against by co-workers after complaining to her superiors, according to a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas by investigator Lara Ward, alleges that the sexual harassment was part of a pattern of unprofessional conduct by officials in the state office that investigates complaints against licensed medical practitioners.
The lawsuit alleges that Don Andreas, deputy chief of investigations for the board’s Las Vegas office, sexually harassed Ward in March 2016 after she obtained information from a local law enforcement source in connection with a case, asking if she had performed a sex act in return.
He repeated the comment several weeks later when Ward obtained a second piece of information, and he “began to engage in and encourage and support a pattern of retaliation, disparagement and disparate treatment” after she objected to his comments, according to the lawsuit.
After enduring the hostile workplace for several months, Ward filed formal sexual harassment and retaliation complaints with the board’s executive director, Edward Cousineau, and former deputy executive director, Todd Rich, both of whom work out of the board’s main office in Reno, it said. Rich said he would investigate her claims, while Cousineau threatened her job, according to the complaint.
Nothing was done, however, and the harassment only grew worse after Ward filed the complaints, it said. Andreas allegedly encouraged several of Ward’s co-workers to participate in the “general hostility” in the office.
Among other things, Ward’s colleagues refused to take messages and pass them along, sabotaging her cases, and kept information about upcoming hearings and board meetings from her to make her appear incompetent, the complaint states.
Ward also filed a discrimination complaint against the medical board with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June of 2016.
Ward declined to comment for the story through her attorney, Jenny Foley.
A spokeswoman for the board’s Reno office declined to comment Monday, and Rich, who left the agency, could not be reached.
The board’s current deputy executive director, Jasmine Mehta, declined to answer questions by phone but emailed a statement saying that the board is “confident that it has handled (Ward’s) complaints in an appropriate fashion, including those alleged in the complaint.”
While the sexual harassment claims form the core of the lawsuit, Ward also levels numerous allegations of unprofessional conduct by various members of the board. Among them, the complaint alleges that:
■ Andreas held personal vendettas against certain physicians, whom he targeted by keeping cases open after doctors were cleared of accusations.
■ Board officials closed several investigations of malpractice concerning high-profile physicians.
■ Doctors sued by a major insurance company for fraud had malpractice cases administratively closed. Those cases accused doctors of misuse of spinal cord and cervical injections and opioids.
■ Opioid overprescription investigations were delayed, including those resulting in death. The delays were part of an overall pattern of mishandling of overdose cases that included closure after lab reports were misread.
■ Female co-workers in the Las Vegas office favored by Andreas were promoted to investigative positions even though they lacked required bachelor’s degrees.
■ Ward, who has a bachelor’s in criminal justice from the University of Colorado, was denied a promotion to senior investigator and received poor marks from Chief of Investigations Pamela Castagnola on an employee review because she inquired about the position.
Ward was placed on administrative leave in September, one week after a co-worker made “a false and unsubstantiated claim” that Ward had harassed her. She is still on leave, according to the complaint.
What the board does
The Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners licenses the state’s physicians, physician assistants, respiratory care practitioners and perfusionists — clinicians who use heart-lung machines during cardiac surgery.
The board handles complaints filed against these health care providers, including medical malpractice complaints. Ramifications for doctors can range from fines to license revocation.
Some doctors, like Navneet Sharda, medical director of the Cancer Care Center in Las Vegas, feel the board tends to pursue complaints against smaller practices more heavily than high-profile ones.
“I was under the impression that the reason they existed was actually to protect the public,” said Sharda, who has fielded his share of board complaints for medical recordkeeping errors, none of which resulted in patient harm.
The board states its purpose online: “In all Board activities, the Board will place the interests of the public before the interests of the medical profession.”