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Employees' Discrimination Lawsuit Alleges Hostile Workplace

But court rules that surgeon's remarks, relationship didn't threaten employees.

Published: December 11, 2014

It's probably not a good idea for a surgeon to make his mistress the office manager of his surgery center. Things turned sour at Lewes Surgical & Medical Associates in Millsboro, Del., after a general surgeon named Semaan M. Abboud, MD, hired his girlfriend, identified in court records as Beth E. Bittner, to run the front office.

Ms. Bittner allegedly put into place unpopular vacation time, sick leave and mobile-phone-use policies. When 5 female employees, who had previously received positive performance evaluations, objected to the policies, they were terminated early in 2013.

The 5 employees (a physician, a nurse practitioner, 2 RNs and a receptionist) then filed a discrimination lawsuit that alleges they were subject to sex, age and racial discrimination, which made the practice a hostile work environment. In the lawsuit, they described how Dr. Abboud and Ms. Bittner openly discussed their relationship and demonstrated affection, and how Dr. Abboud used racial slurs, vocally opposed homosexuality and described his wife and daughter as "whores."

A federal court, however, has dismissed the bulk of the suit. In its Dec. 9 ruling, the court did not find sufficient grounds for discrimination under federal and state law, which, it noted "does not operate as a 'general civility code,' nor 'mandate a happy workplace.'" The ruling also stated that "preferential treatment on the basis of a consensual romantic relationship between a supervisor and an employee is not gender-based discrimination."

The court did, however, express a willingness to hear more about whether the employees intend to claim they were retaliated against, and about one of the plaintiffs' allegations that Dr. Abboud or Ms. Bittner may have misappropriated EMR incentive payments from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The plaintiffs have until Jan. 16, 2015, to amend their suit.

The employees' attorney was not immediately available for comment. An attorney representing the practice, Dr. Abboud, and Ms. Bittner declined to comment on the case.

David Bernard

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