Charleston OB/GYN sues Roper St. Francis in federal court

A Charleston OB/GYN is suing Roper St. Francis because he contends the hospital system violated his civil rights.

A federal lawsuit filed by a longtime Charleston doctor against Roper St. Francis may proceed to trial, a magistrate judge recently ruled.

Dr. Robert Robinson, an OB/GYN, alleges in court records that the hospital system violated his civil rights two years ago by suspending his operating privileges after he was forced to sit down during an emergency cesarean section in 2013.

Robinson, who suffers from diabetes, declined an interview.

The lawsuit contends he is entitled to special accommodations in the operating room under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Although he can walk, he cannot do it well or with sufficient balance,” his attorney alleged in the court records. “Although he can stand, he cannot stand for long periods of time, and needs to sit periodically to avoid pain.”

On Feb. 7, 2013, Robinson performed an emergency C-section at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley. He was unable to stand during the entire procedure because his foot was healing from a recent operation associated with his diabetes. He needed help from another doctor in the operating room to pull the baby out of its mother’s womb.

Both patients survived the surgery, but the mother eventually developed an infection that Robinson contends in court records had nothing to do with his performance in the operating room.

Meanwhile, the hospital system argues that Robinson seriously jeopardized her safety.

“During the procedure, Robinson’s stool persistently wheeled him away from the surgical table, requiring several nurses to push him back into place,” hospital attorneys wrote in court records. “Robinson’s poor judgment, poor clinical skills and physical limitations created a significant risk to the mother’s safety.”

The doctor assisting Robinson in the operating room reported to hospital management that his performance during the procedure made her nervous.

Melanie Stith, vice president of human resources for Roper St. Francis, would not discuss the case, but she said the hospital system often makes accommodations for employees with disabilities.

For example, she said, Roper St. Francis has purchased special equipment for employees with hearing disabilities or visual impairment.

Some surgeons also use stools for extra height or intermittently sit down in the operating room, especially during long procedures.

“We always have to be cognizant of patient safety and teammate safety,” Stith said. “Oftentimes, we’re able to come to a reasonable solution.”

But these accommodations require that an employee disclose he needs help, Stith said.

Roper St. Francis argues in court documents that Robinson never told hospital management that his diabetes limited his scope of practice.

Other hospitals in the Lowcountry also said they would make special accommodations for their doctors, as needed.

“If a surgeon prefers to sit either for comfort or because of a specific need (or) accommodation, MUSC would make that happen to ensure quality patient care,” said Medical University Hospital spokeswoman Heather Woolwine.

A spokeswoman for East Cooper Medical Center said the hospital would need “to consider a number of factors” before making a decision on the issue.

Trident Health said it does not currently employ any surgeons with disabilities, but if it did, the hospital system’s ethics and compliance department would vet any special accommodations that the doctor required.

“In the past, we have had a surgeon break his ankle, and in that case, we made special considerations to accommodate his circumstance,” said Trident Health spokeswoman Rebekah Faulk. “We always want to assist the disabled, but not at the expense of the patient.”

Attorney Chalmers Johnson, who represents Robinson, said the case may proceed to trial fairly quickly.

The hospital system hopes that won’t happen. Roper St. Francis filed a request in court last week petitioning a federal judge to issue summary judgment to settle the dispute without a trial.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.