Psychiatrist sues Keck for wrongful constructive termination

Alan Hanft, a former child psychiatrist at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, took a medical leave of absence last year due to an autoimmune disease. He was asked not to return to the office. (Sunny Dong | Daily Trojan)

A former child psychiatrist has filed a lawsuit against the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and a hospital director for wrongful constructive termination, disability discrimination and other complaints last month.

Dr. Alan Hanft requested a medical leave of absence in October 2017 at CHLA due to an autoimmune disease. Hanft was hired through the Keck school to work at the hospital. However, Hanft took time off from work in December to March 2018 to take care of his own health. He returned to work in April, only to find an administrator and two security guards waiting for him in his office, according to the suit. The suit also stated that Hanft was escorted out of the office in front of his colleagues, and was told that he couldn’t return.

“I was humiliated,” Hanft said. “Never in my life was I escorted anywhere by security guards.”

After this incident, Hanft and his legal team drafted a civil complaint — suing Keck and CHLA for discrimination based on disability, harassment, retaliation, defamation, intrusion into private affairs and wrongful constructive termination in violation of public policy, among other charges.

Hanft said that his removal from the office was not an isolated incident.

USC Keck declined to comment, citing employee privacy. “Due to employee privacy issues, USC is unable to share details regarding personnel matters,” a university spokesperson said in an email.  

According to the complaint, Susan Turkel, an associate professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences and director of psychiatric child services at CHLA, had violated his right to privacy by pressing him to reveal personal information about his diagnosis before he requested a leave of absence in October. Turkel is listed in the Keck School of Medicine’s faculty index, and is being represented by USC.

Turkel did not respond to Daily Trojan in time for publication.

“Dr. Turkel persistently and repeatedly pried into my medical history and resented me when I wouldn’t share it with her,” Hanft said. “She was pressuring me for it. I told her that I was concerned that she would tell everyone else on the team, and she told me I have to accept that.”

CHLA declined to comment on Hanft’s allegations.

As a doctor, this intrusion into private matters seemed off-putting to Hanft, who referenced the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and other obligations of privilege and privacy that doctors swear to uphold.

“[Turkel] acted like she owned [my medical history] and it was hers to do what she wanted with,” Hanft said.

In November 2017, Turkel complained to Steven Siegel, the chair of the department of psychiatry about Hanft’s problematic and condescending behaviors and attitude, according to a memo obtained by the Daily Trojan.

Turkel’s memo described Hanft as being difficult to work with, establishing poor rapport with patients and being unresponsive to colleagues. Turkel called Hanft’s “fitness for his current position” into question and requested that his contract not be renewed.

Hanft said that the memo was a malicious pretext set up to fire him.

The Daily Trojan obtained five years of professional evaluations dating back to 2012, in which CHLA division chiefs called Hanft “outstanding,” “someone who met challenges with good-grace” and someone worthy of promotions.

For each year from 2012-16, the question on the evaluations: “Are there behavioral issues?” was answered with a “no.” Three of these evaluations were signed by Turkel.

John Winer, an attorney from Hanft’s legal team, said these documents showed a lack of support for Turkel’s claims.

“There is zero indication of the pretext on which they [asked him to leave],” Winer said. “We were able to review a lot of the documents from the investigation file and … what we learned is that there is zero support for Dr. Turkel’s position in the case.”

Hanft further detailed the pain he endured during his final months working at CHLA under Turkel, characterizing it as a hostile work environment.

The civil complaint said Hanft was yelled at for attempting to discuss his leave of absence.

“[Turkel] was still glaring at [Hanft] and told him that she did not want to discuss the subject [of his leave] anymore and told [Hanft] to stop talking about it,” according to the civil complaint. “[When] Turkel left, [Hanft] closed the door to his office and began crying.”

A month before he was removed from his office in April, Hanft began seeking legal advice and brought his case to the law firm Winer, McKenna, Burritt and Tills, LLP.

“The bad things that were happening seemed to be escalating,” Hanft said. “Bad things [were becoming] so bad they became intolerable. That’s when the legal [route] became more active. [Turkel] knew about my health issues, and when I requested time off it became much more of a problem.”

Winer stated that constructive termination — which Wex Legal Dictionary defines as “when an employee quits a job because working conditions are so intolerable” — was one of the main claims of the suit.  

“He couldn’t handle it anymore,” Winer said. “Instead of being welcomed back [to work], he was escorted out like a criminal in front of all of his coworkers.”

Hanft said that he believed the security guards were not necessary and that a phone call would have sufficed.

“They knew that [day] was my return date,” Hanft said. “I don’t understand why they didn’t call me the day before. Instead, I showed up.”

Before his official resignation at the end of May this year, Hanft said that he had repeatedly asked higher ranking members of the administration within Keck and the University to seek help.

USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity reached out to Hanft via email in January, and Hanft arranged for a meeting in February, per emails obtained by the Daily Trojan.  The office is still conducting its investigation, and no conclusions have been reached, according to Hanft’s legal team.

OED deferred comment to the University.

“I had reached out to [administration] high up within Keck and the University and it seemed like my concerns fell on deaf ears,” Hanft said.