Ex-hospital administrator sues St. Vincent: Doctor says former employer owes him severance pay

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Dr. Harry Laws blames money for the reason his tenure as the first leader of St. Vincent Children’s Hospital ended in January 2004 after only a year.

Money also is the reason he decided to sue St. Vincent over the dismissal. The longtime pediatrician wants St. Vincent to pay him $230,000 in severance, according to a complaint filed in Marion County court.

Laws contends that St. Vincent fabricated reasons for his dismissal and breached its employment contract with him by providing no severance.

Officials at St. Vincent Hospital and Health Care Center Inc., the entity that encompasses St. Vincent Health’s services on 86th Street in Indianapolis, declined to comment on the case.

“It is our long-standing policy to respect the privacy of all parties involved regarding employment matters,” spokesman Tom Wiser wrote in an e-mail.

However, he did say Laws’ departure “was independent from any financial motivations.”

Laws said he left a good job at Eli Lilly and Co. to become administrator at the children’s hospital, which opened in January 2003. At Lilly, Laws helped develop the drug Strattera, which treats attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Before that, the Michigan native spent 25 years as a pediatrician/administrator at U.S. Air Force hospitals around the world.

St. Vincent offered him the top post at its yet-to-be opened hospital in a letter dated Aug. 13, 2002. The letter promised a base annual salary of $230,000 and severance benefits “as appropriate should your employment be terminated without cause.”

“Harry, we are truly excited about your interest in joining our organization,” St. Vincent executive M. Lynne O’Day wrote in the letter.

Almost a year-and-a-half later, St. Vincent fired Laws. Hospital network officials cited eight performance areas that needed improvement in a Jan. 7, 2004, termination letter. They included Laws’ “level of competency in various areas” and “strained relationships with staff and senior leadership.”

Laws called any reasons given for his dismissal “trumped-up allegations that will soon be proven false.”

His lawyer, Mark Waterfill, elaborated, saying Laws “contends that in several instances he was disciplined for events that either did not occur or were not reported accurately in his evaluations.”

Waterfill said Laws was never given a chance to correct the inaccuracies.

Laws contends he was fired and denied severance so St. Vincent could save money. He said his former employer faced tremendous financial pressure in 2003 and into 2004.

Laws also said the children’s hospital was “nothing but a marketing ploy” when he was there, one in which St. Vincent invested little.

Wiser took exception to that.

“Over the last five years, including three years of physician recruitment and planning before the hospital even opened, St. Vincent dedicated significant resources and talent into what we can proudly say is a leading faith-based children’s hospital,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The Laws complaint, which was filed last June, also alleges the doctor was the subject of age discrimination. It describes his age only as “over 40,” and Laws declined to elaborate on the issue.

Waterfill said their case focuses on the alleged breach of contract over the severance payment, not age discrimination.

“He would not have gone to work for them if he did not believe he was entitled to a one-year severance,” Waterfill said.

Laws said he’s not trying to be vindictive about what happened.

“They need to do what they need to do, but they also need to stick with their promises,” he said. “In my opinion, they breached their contract.”

The litigation is still in an early stage. Waterfill said both sides are exchanging discovery materials.

Both sides also have moved on since Laws’ dismissal. Jeff Poltawsky now serves as administrator of the 73-bed pediatric hospital and for the St. Vincent Pediatric Rehabilitation Center. Poltawsky, 46, started work there last October.

Laws moved to Buffalo, N.Y. He now serves as the division chief of general pediatrics at the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo and as an associate professor of general pediatrics at a university there.

Laws Poltawsky

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